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Editorial: Attacking a medical quandary

The expansion of a Buffalo-led telemedicine study that can provide lifesaving treatment of Hepatitis C to those recovering from drug addiction might warrant expansion beyond New York State.

It is a creative solution in treatment for patients with overlapping needs. The problem is that while intravenous drug users can also contract the potentially deadly Hepatitis C virus, they may be so overwhelmed by addiction treatment that they disregard the associated illness.

Noncompliance can be deadly. Hepatitis C killed a record 20,000 people in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention.

Researchers at the University at Buffalo and elsewhere are involved in the five-year study examining whether to bring hepatitis testing – and, in some cases, treatment – to opioid clinics. The work is done with the assistance of specialists who can consult with patients via laptop or mobile device – and it’s promising.

The shift toward convenience for stressed patient seems a natural progression. Dr. Andrew Talal is leading the $7 million statewide project. The aim is to see if telemedicine can improve Hepatitis C treatment for patients who take methadone. If found to be effective, then the study will answer how it can work best.

The research study is being conducted at two opioid treatment programs in Buffalo – at the Drug Abuse Research and Treatment Program and Catholic Health Pathways. Other locations are in New York City, Rochester, Syracuse and Newburgh. The nonprofit Coalition of Medication-Assisted Treatment Providers and Advocates of New York State also is assisting.

Coalition president Allegra Schorr offered an explanation as to why this work is so important: “It’s hard to get people to go to see the doctor when they want to go,” adding, “There are a lot of appointments, it’s time-consuming and if you’re not feeling well, it’s even harder, so I think this is a really great idea.”

It is, as she said, groundbreaking and easily imaginable for other types of treatment. Coalition member programs number more than 45 across the state and treat more than 41,000 New Yorkers, of all backgrounds.

Telemedicine could be more appealing to those who need help but cannot follow through on referrals to offsite locations, the point noted by Talal, a medical professor and hepatologist who leads liver disease research at the University at Buffalo Clinical and Translational Research Center.

If telemedicine provides one more avenue to treatment for those struggling with addiction and Hepatitis C, then it will offer a promising 21st century approach to grappling with an insidious medical conundrum.

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