Digital epidemiologic research on multilevel risks for HIV acquisition and other health outcomes among transgender women in Eastern and Southern United States: Protocol for an online cohort

American Cohort To Study HIV Acquisition Among Transgender Women (LITE) Study Group

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Background: The HIV epidemic disproportionately impacts transgender women in the United States. Cohort studies identify unique risks for affected populations, but use of facility-based methods may bias findings towards individuals living in research catchment areas, more engaged in health services, or, in the case of transgender populations, those who are open about their transgender identity. Digital clinical trials and other online research methods are increasingly common, providing opportunity to reach those not commonly engaged in research. Simultaneously, there is a need to understand potential biases associated with digital research, how these methods perform, and whether they are accepted across populations. Objective: This study aims to assess the feasibility of developing and implementing an online cohort of transgender women to assess risks for HIV acquisition and other health experiences. Further, this study aims to evaluate how an online cohort compares to a site-based, technology-enhanced cohort for epidemiologic research. The overarching goal is to estimate incidence of HIV and other health outcomes among transgender women in eastern and southern United States. Methods: This substudy is part of a larger multisite prospective cohort (LITE) conducted among transgender women, which also includes a site-based, technology-enhanced cohort in 6 eastern and southern US cities. The online cohort was launched to enroll and follow participants across 72 cities in the same region and with similar demographic characteristics as the site-based cohort. Participants are followed for 24 months. Adult transgender women are recruited via convenience sampling (eg, peer referrals, social media, and dating apps). Participants reporting negative or unknown HIV status are enrolled in a baseline study visit, complete a sociobehavioral survey, and provide oral fluid specimens to test for HIV. Participants not living with HIV (lab-confirmed) at baseline are offered enrollment into the cohort; follow-up assessments occur every 6 months. Results: Enrollment into the online cohort launched in January 2019. Active recruitment stopped in May 2019, and enrollment officially closed in August 2020. A total of 580 participants enrolled into and are followed in the cohort. A recruitment-enrollment cascade was observed across screening, consent, and completion of study activities. Implementation experiences with HIV test kits highlight the need for heavy staff engagement to support participant engagement, visit completion, and retention, even with automated digital procedures. Conclusions: This study is responsive to increasing research interest in digital observational and intervention research, particularly for populations who are most affected by the HIV epidemic and for those who may otherwise not participate in person. The progression across stages of the recruitment-enrollment cascade provides useful insight for implementation of cohort studies in the online environment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere29152
JournalJMIR Research Protocols
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2021


  • Cohort studies
  • Digital research
  • HIV
  • HIV infection
  • HIV testing
  • Online health
  • Public health
  • Transgender
  • Transgender persons
  • United States

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)


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