Health Leaders Employing Mobile-Telemedicine Approach to Address Rising Hepatitis C among People Who Inject Drugs in Rural New England 

HANOVER, N.H. (August 2, 2022) – With increasing opioid use disorder rates and continued hepatitis C (HCV) infections across the region, New England health organizations are teaming up to use a unique, mobile telemedicine approach to bring testing and medical care to people who inject drugs and who might be infected with HCV in rural parts of Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire.

Better Life Partners, a leading community-based provider of substance use treatment in New England, Baystate Health, and Tufts University School of Medicine, are collaborating with harm reduction agencies in Vermont and New Hampshire to study the effectiveness of a van equipped with medical staff, blood testing, syringe services, and telemedicine capability to provide accessible HCV testing and treatment services outside the traditional healthcare setting. The Rural New England Health Study (also known as DISCERNNE) is currently operating in areas around Brattleboro, VT and Keene, NH. 

This is the second phase of the Rural New England Health Study, which is led by researchers at Baystate Health and Tufts. The initial research phase interviewed and provided HCV and HIV testing to people who inject drugs in several rural counties in western Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire. Researchers found 67 percent tested positive for HCV antibodies, but only 8 percent were able to successfully access HCV treatment. 

In New England’s rural areas, the epidemic of opioid use and its related health consequences, including overdose, HIV, HCV, and sexually transmitted infections, present one of the most substantial challenges to public health and healthcare in decades. There has been a precipitous jump in the number of HCV cases in the United States overall, many of them among people who inject drugs. An estimated 2.4 million people are infected with HCV.

“We’re facing a serious threat where the vast majority of new HCV infections happen among folks who inject drugs and don’t have access to clean injection gear, leading to sharing of syringes and needles,” said David de Gijsel, MD, Chief Health Officer at Better Life Partners. “It doesn’t need to be this way.  With harm reduction services like access to clean needles and lowering the barrier to testing and treatment, we can make a difference.”

“As the opioid epidemic has shifted from a crisis of prescription opioids to one of heroin use, we have seen a rise in injection drug use, and with it has come a rise in HCV,” said Peter D. Friedmann, MD, MPH, Chief Research Officer for Baystate Health, Associate Dean for Research at the UMass Chan Medical School – Baystate, and a principal investigator of the study with Thomas Stopka at Tufts.  “Most research on risky injection behavior has been done with urban populations, but recent national surveillance data have shown the fastest rise in HCV incidence has been in rural areas. Rural persons who inject drugs are known to have less access to treatment and effective harm reduction measures, like syringe services programs. This second phase of the study, which will run for the next 3 years, will test a response to the initial findings by working with our clinical partners at Better Life Partners and local harm reduction agencies to use a mobile van to provide syringe services and telemedicine treatment for HCV.”

This community-based work that brings people closer to care is essential in meeting the goals of the nation’s Viral Hepatitis National Strategic Plan, which aims to eliminate HCV as a public health threat by 2030. The plan follows the World Health Organization’s (WHO) definition of elimination: a 90% reduction in new chronic infections and a 65% reduction in mortality, compared to a 2015 baseline. 

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ABOUT BETTER LIFE PARTNERS 

Better Life Partners provides what it takes to heal from addiction. For whomever, wherever, whenever. With a focus on both individual care and impactful community partnerships, Better Life Partners delivers harm reduction services and medical and behavioral health care that drive improved clinical and financial outcomes. Committed to an equitable, accessible, and integrated health system, Better Life Partners provides the tools needed for everyone to live a healthy life full of belonging, love, and purpose. 

Better Life Partners is currently licensed to provide care in New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, and Massachusetts, and contracted with Medicaid, Medicare, and Commercial insurers. Powered by a compassionate clinical team and backed by Alumni Ventures, F-Prime Capital, and other investors, Better Life Partners is positioned to build the multispecialty practice of the future. To learn more, visit https://betterlifepartners.com

ABOUT BAYSTATE HEALTH

Baystate Health is a not-for-profit integrated healthcare system serving over 800,000 people throughout western Massachusetts. Nationally recognized as a leader in healthcare quality and safety, Baystate Health has nearly 13,000 employees and serves a diverse population of patients at its teaching hospital, Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, as well as at Baystate Children’s Hospital – the region’s only comprehensive children’s hospital, its three community hospitals, several urban health centers, home care and hospice services, and a network of over 80 medical practices. A leader in medical education for more than a century, Baystate Health is home to the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School – Baystate, the first medical school campus in western Massachusetts. For more information on Baystate Health, visit www.baystatehealth.org.

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