For injection drug users with hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection, providing treatment opportunities within a local needle exchange program can provide care to more patients and eventually cure more patients, a new study suggests.
The study’s findings help “counteract the implicit belief within the medical community that people who inject drugs can’t or don’t want to engage in health care,” lead author Benjamin Eckhardt, MD, with NYU Grossman School of Medicine, told this news organization.
“By simply focusing on patient accompaniment, limiting stigma, and removing the punitive response for missed appointments, we can effectively engage people who inject drugs in health care and more specifically cure their infection, making significant inroads to HCV elimination,” Dr. Eckhardt said.
The study was published online in JAMA Internal Medicine.
Nonjudgmental, patient-centered approach
Researchers included 165 injection drug users with HCV (mean age, 42 years; 78% men); 82 were randomly allocated to the accessible care intervention and 83 to a usual care control group.
The accessible care model provides HCV treatment within a community-based needle exchange program in a comfortable, nonjudgmental atmosphere, “without fear of shame or stigma that people who inject drugs often experience in mainstream institutions,” the investigators explain.
Control participants were connected to a patient navigator who facilitated referrals to community direct antigen antiviral therapy programs that were not at a syringe service program.
In an intent-to-treat analysis, those enrolled in the accessible care group achieved sustained viral eradication at 12 months at significantly higher rates than those in the control group (67% vs. 23%; P < .001).
Once patients initiated treatment, cure rates were the same in both groups (86%), indicating that the major benefit of the accessible care program was in facilitating treatment, rather than increasing adherence to or response to treatment, the researchers noted.
This is reflected in the fact that the percentage of participants who advanced along the care cascade was significantly higher at each step for the accessible care group than the control group, from referral to an HCV clinician (93% vs. 45%), attendance of the initial HCV clinical visit (87% vs. 37%), completion of baseline laboratory testing (87% vs. 31%), and treatment initiation (78% vs. 27%).
Getting to the population in need
“The most surprising aspect of the study was how successful we were at recruiting, engaging, and treating people who inject drugs who lived outside the immediate community where the syringe exchange program was located and had no prior connection to the program,” Dr. Eckhardt said.
“We had numerous individuals travel 45-plus minutes on the subway from the South Bronx, passing four major medical centers with robust hepatitis C treatment programs, to seek care for hepatitis C in a small, dark office – but also an office they’d heard can be trusted – without fear of stigma or preconditions,” Dr. Eckhardt said.
Commenting on the study’s findings, Nancy Reau, MD, section chief of hepatology at Rush Medical College, Chicago, said, “This is another successful example of making therapy accessible to the population who is in need versus trying to move them into a tertiary care model.”
Dr. Reau noted that similar care models exist in the United States but are not always accessible to the population in need.
“The safety and efficacy of current therapy and the simplified care cascade make HCV an appropriate disease for this delivery,” she said, adding that this study “highlights not just the importance of these programs but also the necessity of engaging the medical community, changing policy, and using patient navigators and monetary support/prioritization to provide appropriate HCV management to those who are at high risk for the disease and for transmission.”