Methods: In this community-based exploratory qualitative study, HIV health and social service providers (n=8) were recruited using purposive sampling, with attention to recruiting participants from diverse geographic settings (e.g., urban, rural, suburban) and holding diverse roles (e.g., social work, medicine). Participants practiced in seven distinct counties of Michigan, including those both densely (e.g., Wayne County, 2974.4 persons per square mile) and sparsely populated (e.g., Marquette County, 37.1 persons per square mile 2019). Interviews were analyzed using a reflexive thematic approach informed by the principles of grounded theory.
Results: Providers across geographic locations and disciplinary positions expressed quite varied attitudes about the efficacy and potential of virtual approaches to care, including both telehealth and virtual modes of social and peer support. These attitudes varied widely across geographic locations, suggesting that virtual modes of care – far from being a monolithic solution to geographic barriers to care (like lack of transportation and physical distance) – are in fact highly specific to local contexts and environments. While telehealth and other modes of virtual care may be presented as eliminating geographic barriers to care, they are in fact shaped by their relative geographic locations.
Conclusions: These interviews reveal wide variation in how providers understand and navigate virtual modes of care in response to geospatial factors -- particularly in relationship to patients’ social identities and geographic locations. Far from erasing geographic differences and geospatial barriers, these providers demonstrate how virtual responses to geospatial barriers to care may be experienced in quite particular ways across contexts. This study suggests the need for further research in HIV care and related fields to examine the nuances of how virtual spaces are shaped and experienced across geographic, organizational, and therapeutic contexts, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.