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Southern Arizona VA Health Care System

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SAVAHCS takes lead for Veteran Hepatitis C testing

Veteran having heart checked with stethoscope by a doctor

Veterans can live for many years without even knowing that they have Hepatitis C, and by the time a Veteran is diagnosed with the virus there could already be liver damage. Hepatitis C, if left untreated, can potentially lead to lifelong illnesses.

By By Luke Johnson, Assistant Public Affairs Officer
Friday, March 10, 2017

Veterans can live for many years without even knowing that they have Hepatitis C, and by the time a Veteran is diagnosed with the virus there could already be liver damage. Hepatitis C , if left untreated, can potentially lead to lifelong illnesses.

According to VA research studies, Veterans have three times the risk of being infected than those of the general U.S. population. Hepatitis C infection is often a silent disease in its early stages, and many patients are unaware that they are infected. However, once identified, the infection can usually be cured before the patient becomes ill. This is why recent CDC guidelines have recommended Hepatitis C screening for all individuals born between 1945 and 1965, who are at the greatest risk of having contact with this virus.

The Southern Arizona VA Health Care System (SAVAHCS) Pathology & Laboratory Service has spear-headed a unique and innovative program to assist Veterans with Hepatitis C screening. An automated system was built to send a letter to every patient who is eligible, but has not yet tested for Hepatitis C. The letter not only informs patients about Hepatitis C screening recommendations, but it also serves as an order from the provider. They simply show the letter to a phlebotomist who will then collect their blood for testing. After testing is completed, another automated letter is sent back with results.

Since the start of this initiative in October 2015, nearly 8,000 letters have been sent to Veterans that use SAVAHCS for their care.  Almost 2,800 Veterans have used these letters to be screened, and about one percent of these screenings have resulted in diagnosis of Hepatitis C. SAVAHCS plans on continuing this program by sending out more letters to Veterans that did not respond the first time.

Most importantly, since 2014, treatment for Hepatitis C has greatly improved with shorter duration (about 12 weeks) and much less side effects compared to previous medications. In addition, almost all patients can be cured, so they can lead fuller and healthier lives.

According to Dr. Ron B. Schifman, Chief of Pathology & Laboratory Service Care Line, the Tucson VA’s Hepatitis C screening project was presented at a national conference in Orlando last year to showcase this new initiative on getting more Veterans screen for Hepatitis C. Also, SAVAHCS has helped other VA facilities within Veterans Integrated Services Network (VISN) 22 (San Diego, Phoenix, and Albuquerque) implement this process of using automated letters to assist Veterans who would benefit by being screened for Hepatitis C. 

Since May is Hepatitis awareness month, SAVAHCS will be offering screening to all eligible patients every Friday morning during that month in the main reception area of Building 80. If any Veteran did not receive an automated letter or would like more information about this silent infection, they should discuss it with their primary care provider during their next appointment.

For more information, please visit www.hepatitis.va.gov to learn more about the VA’s screening, treatment, and prevention of Hepatitis C.

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