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PLoS Med. 2019 May 21;16(5):e1002808. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1002808. eCollection 2019 May.

The impact of community- versus clinic-based adherence clubs on loss from care and viral suppression for antiretroviral therapy patients: Findings from a pragmatic randomized controlled trial in South Africa.

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Department of Epidemiology, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland, United States of America.
Witkoppen Health and Welfare Centre, Johannesburg, South Africa.
Epidemiology for Global Health Institute, University of Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium.



Adherence clubs, where groups of 25-30 patients who are virally suppressed on antiretroviral therapy (ART) meet for counseling and medication pickup, represent an innovative model to retain patients in care and facilitate task-shifting. This intervention replaces traditional clinical care encounters with a 1-hour group session every 2-3 months, and can be organized at a clinic or a community venue. We performed a pragmatic randomized controlled trial to compare loss from club-based care between community- and clinic-based adherence clubs.


Patients on ART with undetectable viral load at Witkoppen Health and Welfare Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa, were randomized 1:1 to a clinic- or community-based adherence club. Clubs were held every other month. All participants received annual viral load monitoring and medical exam at the clinic. Participants were referred back to clinic-based standard care if they missed a club visit and did not pick up ART medications within 5 days, had 2 consecutive late ART medication pickups, developed a disqualifying (excluding) comorbidity, or had viral rebound. From February 12, 2014, to May 31, 2015, we randomized 775 eligible adults into 12 pairs of clubs-376 (49%) into clinic-based clubs and 399 (51%) into community-based clubs. Characteristics were similar by arm: 65% female, median age 38 years, and median CD4 count 506 cells/mm3. Overall, 47% (95% CI 44%-51%) experienced the primary outcome of loss from club-based care. Among community-based club participants, the cumulative proportion lost from club-based care was 52% (95% CI 47%-57%), compared to 43% (95% CI 38%-48%, p = 0.002) among clinic-based club participants. The risk of loss to club-based care was higher among participants assigned to community-based clubs than among those assigned to clinic-based clubs (adjusted hazard ratio 1.38, 95% CI 1.02-1.87, p = 0.032), after accounting for sex, age, nationality, time on ART, baseline CD4 count, and employment status. Among those who were lost from club-based care (n = 367), the most common reason was missing a club visit and the associated ART medication pickup entirely (54%, 95% CI 49%-59%), and was similar by arm (p = 0.086). Development of an excluding comorbidity occurred in 3% overall of those lost from club-based care, and was not different by arm (p = 0.816); no deaths occurred in either arm during club-based care. Viral rebound occurred in 13% of those lost from community club-based care and 21% of those lost from clinic-based care (p = 0.051). In post hoc secondary analysis, among those referred to standard care, 72% (95% CI 68%-77%) reengaged in clinic-based care within 90 days of their club-based care discontinuation date. The main limitations of the trial are the lack of a comparison group receiving routine clinic-based standard care and the potential limited generalizability due to the single-clinic setting.


These findings demonstrate that overall loss from an adherence club intervention was high in this setting and that, importantly, it was worse in community-based adherence clubs compared to those based at the clinic. We urge caution in assuming that the effectiveness of clinic-based interventions will carry over to community settings, without a better understanding of patient-level factors associated with successful retention in care.


Pan African Clinical Trials Registry (PACTR201602001460157).

Conflict of interest statement

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

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