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J Int AIDS Soc. 2017 Aug 29;20(Suppl 6):21755. doi: 10.7448/IAS.20.7.21755.

To err is human, to correct is public health: a systematic review examining poor quality testing and misdiagnosis of HIV status.

Author information

Department of HIV, World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland.
Department of Clinical Research, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, UK.
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC, USA.
Department of Essential Medicines and Health Products, World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland.
Department of Epidemiology and Population Health, American University of Beirut, Beirut, Lebanon.
Department of International Health, Johns Hopkins University, Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, MD, USA.
US Agency for International Development, Washington, DC, USA.



In accordance with global testing and treatment targets, many countries are seeking ways to reach the "90-90-90" goals, starting with diagnosing 90% of all people with HIV. Quality HIV testing services are needed to enable people with HIV to be diagnosed and linked to treatment as early as possible. It is essential that opportunities to reach people with undiagnosed HIV are not missed, diagnoses are correct and HIV-negative individuals are not inadvertently initiated on life-long treatment. We conducted this systematic review to assess the magnitude of misdiagnosis and to describe poor HIV testing practices using rapid diagnostic tests.


We systematically searched peer-reviewed articles, abstracts and grey literature published from 1 January 1990 to 19 April 2017. Studies were included if they used at least two rapid diagnostic tests and reported on HIV misdiagnosis, factors related to potential misdiagnosis or described quality issues and errors related to HIV testing.


Sixty-four studies were included in this review. A small proportion of false positive (median 3.1%, interquartile range (IQR): 0.4-5.2%) and false negative (median: 0.4%, IQR: 0-3.9%) diagnoses were identified. Suboptimal testing strategies were the most common factor in studies reporting misdiagnoses, particularly false positive diagnoses due to using a "tiebreaker" test to resolve discrepant test results. A substantial proportion of false negative diagnoses were related to retesting among people on antiretroviral therapy. Conclusions HIV testing errors and poor practices, particularly those resulting in false positive or false negative diagnoses, do occur but are preventable. Efforts to accelerate HIV diagnosis and linkage to treatment should be complemented by efforts to improve the quality of HIV testing services and strengthen the quality management systems, particularly the use of validated testing algorithms and strategies, retesting people diagnosed with HIV before initiating treatment and providing clear messages to people with HIV on treatment on the risk of a "false negative" test result.


HIV; HIV testing; diagnostic error; false positive; healthcare; misclassification; misdiagnosis; patient safety

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