New Mexico Program Aimed at Silent Killer

Baby boomers – those born in the generation following the end of World War II – may be unknowingly paying a heavy health price as a result of growing up in the age of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll.

That price is coming for many in the form of Hepatitis C, a disease that can lay dormant in a person for decades then cause potentially fatal liver diseases like cirrhosis and cancer. Detected early enough, it is curable – but many of those who have it don’t find that out until it’s too late.

In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that everyone born between 1945 and 1965 undergo a simple blood test for the disease.

According to federal officials, an estimated 5 million people born over that span are unknowingly carrying the disease. The trouble, however, is making sure that the word gets out, and the testing happens.

In New Mexico, a new program is helping extend that message – and testing – into the rural parts of the state where it has never existed before.

Dr. Karla Thornton, the associate director at Project ECHO, an endeavor of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, outlined the program at the Colorado Health Symposium in Keystone earlier this month. The goal was simple – to use technology to extend treatment of chronic, common and complex diseases in rural areas of the state, and to develop measurable data to confirm that it was improving health.

Before its existence, Dr. Sanjeev Arora, a liver disease specialist, was frustrated that he often would see people with disease brought on by Hepatitis C after it was too late to do anything about it. Specialists who cold test and diagnose patients were clustered in Albuquerque – not in rural towns, some of them hundreds of miles away. And the doctors in those towns were not always up on the latest medical advances and would often not know what to look for in a patient susceptible to Hepatitis C.

Project ECHO grew out of that frustration.

The idea was simple: Use technology to connect the experts with rural family practice doctors in an effort to boost testing and treatment, with an ultimate goal of curing people who otherwise would not be diagnosed until they were headed for near-certain death.

New Mexico has an estimated 30,000 cases of Hepatitis C – less than 5 percent of which had been treated before the advent of the project. And 2,400 inmates in the state’s prison system had never been treated.

Thornton said Hepatitis C was the perfect illness to tackle because it can be cured.

“When you get rid of this virus, it’s gone forever,” Thornton said during a presentation at the symposium, sponsored by the Colorado Health Foundation.

Once the project was launched, rural doctors were brought to Albuquerque for training and to spend time on rounds with Dr. Arora and his colleagues. Then they were connected to a virtual network of other doctors like them and the specialists at the university – meeting weekly on a video conference to discuss advances in medical treatment and specific patients. Rural doctors stepped up their discussions with patients and dramatically increased testing.

Today, more than 5,000 Hepatitis C patients have been or are being treated – up from less than 1,500 before the project’s launch. In addition, 300 prisoners have been treated by Project ECHO.

The increased rate of treatment – and the fact that the state is now seeing the same cure rate in rural New Mexico as was experienced at the university’s medical center – convinced the project’s leaders that it should be expanded.

Similar efforts are under way now to help with such things as addictions and rheumatology – chronic, common afflictions that can be managed in many cases.

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