The Downtown Community Health Centre (DCHC) team is celebrating their new Hepatitis C treatment program that has eight patients receiving treatment and three patients already virus free.
“It’s been a real learning curve since we were trained in May,” says Dr. Deborah Kason, a DCHC family doctor who received training to treat Hepatitis C in the community. “Everything we did until a few months ago was totally new to us as a team,” she says. “Now we’re gaining confidence and I think it’s pretty amazing what we’ve accomplished in a short period of time.”
The symptoms of chronic Hepatitis C
, a disease caused by a virus that infects the liver, can take many years to surface. If left untreated, the virus can cause severe liver damage and even failure. It also increases the risk of liver cancer.
“Unfortunately it’s a disease that often takes a back seat in care plans because other issues are more pressing,” says Lesley Gallagher, a clinical nurse educator who has been part of Pender Community Health Centre’s internationally-recognized Hepatitis C program since 2005. “But now there’s actually talk in the larger medical community of the potential to eliminate this chronic disease through medication. That’s huge!”
Treatments have historically been lengthy and complicated; most took 48 weeks to complete and often needed a hospital-based team of experts. Now with more tolerable and efficacious drugs, some patients can undergo community-based therapy in as little as 12 weeks.
“There’s a lot of on the ground, hands-on work that needs to be done before patients can start treatment,” says Lesley, referring to the work of the primary care teams.
This includes diagnosing infection for new patients and reconnecting with individuals already diagnosed who may now be eligible for treatment. The teams also provide education and arrange tests such as an ultrasound and blood work.
During treatment, all aspects of a client’s health need to be supported. Clinicians check-in with patients at least once a week.
Patients are successfully moving along in their treatment plan—not dropping off—which Dr. Kason believes is because of collaboration amongst the team. Family doctors and nurse practitioners can discuss and support all aspects of care with pharmacists, registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, counsellors and dietitians involved.
The DCHC team is also supported by Dr. Mark Hull, a specialist in infectious disease, who also practices in HIV and viral hepatitis at St. Paul’s Hospital.
“There are parallels to HIV in how the disease has evolved,” says Misty Bath, the program coordinator for all sites in Vancouver. “We’ve come a long way for HIV and the same could hold true for Hep C if we can build on this momentum.”
“At the end of the day, it’s better for clients,” she says. “They don’t have to live with this disease.”
Primary care clinics, one located at DCHC, provide a range of primary health care services to individuals who are residents of Vancouver. Priority is placed on complex, vulnerable and/or marginalized individuals who do not have a family doctor and have trouble accessing health care in other settings to manage their health care needs and chronic disease conditions.