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Hepatitis C patients who use drugs need multidisciplinary treatment: B.C. study

Patients with hepatitis C who inject drugs do better at clinics that offer 'one-stop shopping' to help address social barriers.

An undated handout photo provided by Gilead Sciences that shows the hepatitis C medication, Sovaldi. Sovaldi, a new pill for hepatitis C, cures the liver-wasting disease in nine of 10 patients.

AP Photo/Gilead Sciences

An undated handout photo provided by Gilead Sciences that shows the hepatitis C medication, Sovaldi. Sovaldi, a new pill for hepatitis C, cures the liver-wasting disease in nine of 10 patients.

Treating patients with hepatitis C who inject illegal drugs using only medication is ineffective without also addressing the complex social issues they face, finds a new study from the University of Victoria.

Although new hepatitis C drugs can cure the liver-wasting disease in most patients, new research suggests the treatment does little to help patients who inject drugs, some of society’s most vulnerable citizens who are also the most challenging to help.

“There’s quite a bit of attention to medical advances (in hepatitis C treatment), but it doesn’t really impact the people most affected (by hepatitis C),” said Bruce Wallace, co-author of the study and an assistant professor at UVic’s School of Social Work. “People are being excluded from access to treatment and it is the people who need it the most.”

For the study, researchers looked at the model used at the Cool Aid Community Health Clinic in Victoria, B.C., which offers both clinical treatment as well as support systems like on-site pharmacy and nutritionists for patients struggling with poverty, substance use or mental health problems.

“It’s all about one-stop shop,” said Wallace. “One of the significant issues is, because people who are injecting drugs face criminalization and marginalization, any referrals out to other parts of the health-care system can be a break in the continuum of care.”

Researchers found that after the clinic launched a multi-disciplinary model, the number of patients who tested for hepatitis C and also stuck with their treatment plans more than doubled. 

Wallace said the study’s findings highlight the need for public investment in primary care combined with support systems to address social barriers that affect access to hepatitis C treatment. 

“An investment in this sort of model where you can go through the whole treatment in one setting, so you can actually go from testing to diagnosis to care all in one setting, is what really will improve the outcomes,” he said.

The study was published last month in the International Journal on Drug Policy.

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