“The research assistants kept coming to follow me up; I counted myself as a lucky person”: Social support arising from a longitudinal HIV cohort study in Uganda

Jeffrey I. Campbell, Angella Musiimenta, Sylvia Natukunda, Nir Eyal, Jessica E. Haberer

Publication Date: 01/25/2022

Abstract: Background Participation in longitudinal research studies in resource-limited settings often involves frequent interactions with study staff and other participants, as well as receipt of incentives and transportation reimbursements. Social support—receipt of material and emotional resources from one’s social network—has been linked to antiretroviral adherence in sub-Saharan Africa. The extent to which social support arises from study participation, its range and depth, and its implications for observational study conduct, have not been extensively described. Methods We conducted individual open-ended and semi-structured interviews with participants in a longitudinal, observational antiretroviral therapy adherence monitoring study in Mbarara, Uganda. Participants were asked about their experiences in the longitudinal study and their interactions with research staff. We also interviewed study research assistants (RAs). Deductive and inductive coding were used to identify content related to the experience of study participation. Codes were organized into themes, and relationships between themes were used to develop overarching categories. Results Sixty longitudinal study participants and 6 RAs were interviewed. Instrumental and emotional social support emerged as pervasive and valued aspects of longitudinal study participation. Instrumental support that participants received consisted of enhanced linkage to medical care, health education, and direct and indirect material benefits. Emotional support consisted of perceptions of feeling “cared for” and social interactions that permitted escape from HIV-related stigma. Both instrumental and emotional support often arose through the close relationships participants formed with research staff and with each other. Study-derived social support motivated some participants to adhere to antiretroviral therapy—an unanticipated effect potentially influencing the longitudinal study’s primary observational outcome. Conclusions Longitudinal study participation resulted in instrumental and emotional social support for participants. The depth of support participants experienced has implications for observational study design in resource-limited settings, including need to assess potential effects on study outcomes; consideration of social support during risk/benefit assessment in study ethics review and consent; and vigilance for consequences of social support loss when studies end.