Digital alerts boost hepatitis C screenings

August 8, 2016  //  FOUND IN: News

Baby boomers, adults born between 1946 and 1964, are five times more likely to have been exposed to the hepatitis C virus (HCV) than other generations.

As a result, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Preventive Service Task Force recommend that all patients in that age group get tested for the virus.

But the simple blood test, designed to detect and prevent illness before the virus wreaks havoc, is infrequently performed on baby boomers whose routine medical appointments are often crammed with other preventative measures and tests.

Investigators at UMHS recently found an easy way to help its primary care physicians ensure that an HCV screening is part of the routine: electronic medical record alerts.

The automated alert, programmed to appear if a patient is within the at-risk age range, reminds doctors not only to issue the test but also provide educational materials about the virus.

Implemented in fall 2015 in primary care clinics throughout the health system, the strategy contributed to a significant rise in screenings — an eightfold boost — in the first six months.

“A large part of the success was figuring out how to take the logistical work away, which involves more than looking at a patient’s date of birth,” says Monica Konerman, M.D., M.Sc., a hepatologist at U-M.

Why screening matters

Of the 16,773 baby boomers targeted for screening via electronic alerts at UMHS, fewer than 1 percent tested positive for the hepatitis C antibody.

Despite that low rate, the alert system nonetheless helped identify people who would benefit from curative hepatitis C treatment.

A new era in hepatitis treatment began in 2013 with the approval of interferon-free oral combination therapy that was demonstrated in clinical studies led by U-M to cure hepatitis C in 95 percent of patients. If treated and the body responds, patients can get rid of the virus before liver damage and liver failure occur.

Which is why the new alert technology is crucial for a population that could benefit most from HCV screening.

“The availability of direct-acting antiviral agents has been a game-changer,” says Konerman. “Today, short courses of all oral treatments are highly effective and can prevent progressive liver disease.”