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Stemming The Hepatitis C Epidemic: University Of Chicago Medicine Helps Patients Find A Cure

There is a cure for Hepatitis C but far too few people know about it and even fewer realize they should be tested.

Baby boomers, home tattoo recipients and, increasingly, suburban teen drug users are all at risk for Hepatitis C exposure. But a University of Chicago Medicine program is helping neighborhood primary care physicians learn to identify and treat the affected, so they can get fast access to tests and drugs that cure this liver disease. No trip to a specialist is necessary.

“Three things are top of mind for me,” says Daniel Johnson, M.D., director of ECHO-Chicago (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes-Chicago), which is the base for the CDC- sponsored HepCCATT program at the University of Chicago Medicine that has trained 150 doctors and nurses to identify and stage patients with the disease. “A large percentage of people with Hepatitis C don’t know that they’re infected and need to be diagnosed,” Johnson says. “There is a treatment available that is between 95 percent and 100 percent curative. The state of Illinois needs to increase access to these lifesaving medications for people who are on Medicaid.”

The program’s partners include community-based health care providers, community hospitals, clinics and pharmacies.

Currently, there aren’t enough hepatologists in Chicago to treat every patient diagnosed with Hepatitis C, and it can take as much as six months for patients to even get an appointment with a specialist and receive a diagnosis. By training primary care providers, University of Chicago Medicine is strengthening the continuum of care for patients.

CDC guidelines recommend that anyone born between 1945-1965 get a once-in-a-lifetime test for Hepatitis C, which is covered by insurance. According to the agency, as many as 3.9 million Americans have chronic Hepatitis C. Untreated Hepatitis C can cause liver malfunction, and eventually, death. But it doesn’t have to end that way. ECHO-Chicago, created in 2010, uses videoconferencing to create a virtual “rounding” course where University of Chicago doctors teach and talk with community-based physicians so that patients are immediately treated.

This helps deals with the secondary issue of access. Currently, Medicaid patients only can get key drugs after severe illness.

“Can you imagine if Illinois Medicaid would only pay to treat breast cancer if it was really extensive cancer, or if they said ‘we’re not going to treat high blood pressure until you have your first heart attack?’” says Andrew Aronsohn, M.D., an associate professor at the University of Chicago Medicine and a hepatologist who helped create the ECHO-Chicago curriculum, which is shared with some 54 Chicago sites. “That’s ridiculous. Today if someone has Hepatitis C, for most patients, they take a pill a day for three months with no side effects and have almost a 100-percent cure rate. How many diseases are like that? This is the picture of preventative medicine.”

Primary care providers interested in the HepCCATT project can visit its website to learn more and to join.

By Adrienne Samuels Gibbs, DNAinfo Creative

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