High-Tech Medical Consulting from St. Joseph's Helps Native Americans with Hepatitis C

Experts Lend Hand in Arizona's Rural Areas

Nov 28, 2012, 11:03 ET from St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center

PHOENIX, Nov. 28, 2012 /PRNewswire/ -- With reported cases of hepatitis C skyrocketing around the nation, experts at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center have launched an innovative state-wide program to help doctors in rural and underserved areas diagnose and treat this hard-to-cure disease.

The high-tech project, called HCVNET, will include outreach to 15 areas, including the Navajo and Hopi Native American reservations.  It is being funded by a $250,000 grant from the United States Center for Disease Control (CDC) and a matching grant from a private industry source.  St. Joseph's was selected among over 140 applicants for the prestigious CDC grants.

"Most rural and medically underserved communities do not have experts in hepatitis.  It is a disease that is easy to diagnosis and yet hard to treat," says Richard Manch,  MD,  head of the St. Joseph's Center for Liver and Hepatobiliary Disease.   "The idea of this telementoring program is to have more patients treated successfully by assisting and counseling local doctors and other providers."

At the heart of the new program is a high-tech teleconferencing center at St. Joseph's that allows Dr. Manch and his team to consult with the 15 sites around the state simultaneously.  Every Wednesday morning the St. Joseph's experts offer medical consultations and resources.

Dr. Manch says many people with hepatitis C do not know they have the disease until it becomes very serious.  "These patients look normal, but they are sometimes very ill.  Infected people often show no symptoms but may eventually develop liver cancer, cirrhosis or other complications. They may also unknowingly pass the infection on to other people."

"This new program fills a resource gap for our Native American patients," says Dr. Bernice Ly, Chief of Internal Medicine at Tuba City Regional Health Care Corporation.  "Hepatitis C is a treatable disease, but the treatment requires close monitoring and coordination.  The HCVNET project will provide a way to offer hepatitis C treatment without added hardship to our patients."

Hepatitis C is a mounting public health concern.  As many as 5 million Americans are believed to be infected and 12,000 die annually.  Earlier this year the government recommended that all Baby Boomers be tested.  Officials estimate that the new testing could identify 800,000 people with the infection.

Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus spread through shared needles and in past years blood transfusions that took place before routine screening, and other exposures to infected blood. In some cases, the virus can also be spread through sexual contact.

Dr. Manch says he and his team recognized that a new and innovative approach was needed to address the large infected population.  "The HEP C crisis is particularly acute in Arizona where challenges include large distances between patients and providers, inadequate access to care facilities, lack of knowledge and awareness of hepatitis C and significant economic hardships for many of those who are at risk."

Rather than having the patient spend time and money traveling to a specialist, the new program allows patients to be screened and treated close to home by primary providers who know their culture, language and communities, said Dr. Manch.

SOURCE St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center