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Practical steps to improve chronic hepatitis C treatment in people with opioid use disorder

Authors Roncero C, Ryan P, Littlewood R, Macías J, Ruiz J, Seijo P, Palma-Alvarez RF, Vega P

Received 11 September 2018

Accepted for publication 21 November 2018

Published 24 December 2018 Volume 2019:11 Pages 1—11


Checked for plagiarism Yes

Review by Single anonymous peer review

Peer reviewer comments 2

Editor who approved publication: Dr Gerry Lake-Bakaar

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Carlos Roncero,1 Pablo Ryan,2–4 Richard Littlewood,5 Juan Macías,6 Juan Ruiz,7 Pedro Seijo,8 Raúl Felipe Palma-Álvarez,9–11 Pablo Vega12,13

1Psychiatric Service, University of Salamanca Health Care Complex, Institute of Biomedicine of Salamanca, University of Salamanca, Salamanca, Spain; 2Internal Medicine Service, University Hospital Infanta Leonor, Madrid, Spain; 3School of Medicine, Complutense University of Madrid, Madrid, Spain; 4Gregorio Marañón Health Research Institute, Madrid, Spain; 5applied strategic, London, UK; 6Department of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology, Valme University Hospital, Seville, Spain; 7Provincial Center of Drug Addiction, Malaga, Spain; 8Addiction Treatment Center of Villamartín, Cádiz, Spain; 9Addiction and Dual Diagnosis Unit, Vall Hebron University Hospital, Barcelona, Spain; 10Psychiatry Service, Biomedical Research Networking Center for Mental Health Network, Vall Hebron University Hospital, Barcelona, Spain; 11Autonomous University of Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain; 12Spanish Society of Dual Diagnosis, Bilbao, Spain; 13Institute of Addictions, Madrid, Spain

Objectives: People with a history of injecting drugs have high prevalence of hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection, and many have opioid use disorder (OUD). Modern HCV therapies with improved efficacy and tolerability are available, but access is often limited for this group, who may be underserved for health care and face social inequity. This work develops practical steps to improve HCV care in this population.
Methods: Practical steps to improve HCV care in OUD populations were developed based on clinical experience from Spain, structured assessment of published evidence.
Results: Options for improving care at engagement/screening stages include patient education programs, strong provider–patient relationship, peer support, and adoption of rapid effective screening tools. To facilitate work up/treatment, start options include simplified work up process, integration of HCV and OUD care, and continuous psychosocial support prior, during, and after HCV treatment.
Conclusion: It is important to plan on local basis to set up a joint integrated approach between specific drug treatment services and local points of HCV care. The elements for a specific integrated program should be chosen from options identified, including education services, peer input, organization to make HCV screening and treatment easier by co-location of services, and wider access to prescribing direct-acting antiviral (DAA) therapy.

Keywords: HCV, opioid use disorder, treatment, elimination, practical recommendations


Chronic hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection is common in people with a history of injecting drugs and opioid use disorder (OUD).1,2 In Europe, it is estimated that 2–3 million individuals have a lifetime history of injecting drug use, including 1.5 million who have a recent history of OUD.2 HCV infection is prevalent in 14–84% of such groups.3 Despite high prevalence, individuals in these groups are often marginalized and have limited access to general health care.4 Increasing mortality/morbidity due to advanced liver disease defines a major public health problem among people with a history of injecting drugs and OUD5 and calls for enhanced access to HCV care for such a marginalized population.6

Direct-acting antiviral (DAA) drugs indicated for HCV treatment, with improved efficacy, safety profile, and tolerability, when compared with interferon-based regimens, have transformed outcomes.7 DAA regimens are effective in patients receiving opioid agonist therapy (OAT)/opioid substitution therapy (OST) for OUD.810 Many people with a history of injecting drugs are engaged with OUD treatment services11; in Europe, the proportion of engagement with OUD care is 40–90%.12 In Spain, an estimated 60–80,000 people are engaged with OUD treatment services,2 of whom 50–80% are infected with HCV.2,13 OUD care is often provided by social services, municipal authorities, or the national health service, in different settings within each region or country.2,12,13 These centers are separated from potential points of care for HCV.12 In Spain and other countries, OUD treatment is provided in specialist-led, often standalone offices or clinics; HCV specialist services are not co-located in many cases.5,12 Local arrangements for HCV management clinical services are the responsibility of different parts of the health care system, including infectious diseases, internal medicine, and hepatology departments. These organizational factors limit the success of HCV care; social and provider-related barriers to HCV care are also significant.14

The objective of this work is to identify practical steps to improve HCV treatment in people with a history of injecting drugs and OUD based on clinical experience and relevant evidence in this evolving area.


Evidence describing interventions that may improve outcomes in the management of HCV treatment in the context of OUD was collected and assessed. A structured approach to organize analysis was followed, applying an existing framework of a patient journey.2,15 This framework describes treatment in steps from potential initial presentation at a drug treatment service through steps of engagement, screening, work up/referral, and treatment (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Summary of the process for literature search.

Abbreviations: AASLD, American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases; BASL, British Association for the Study of the Liver; EASL, European Association for the Study of the Liver.

Evidence collection

A structured search of published literature from PubMed, Web of Science, and Cochrane databases was completed using a set of predefined search terms (Table 1). The search was restricted to publications after 2012, when the first DAA medications became available. A specific additional search of the proceedings of recent, relevant scientific expert meetings was completed to capture the most recent evidence. This focused on the major academic congresses of the leading professional societies, as identified by experts highly familiar with the therapy area. These included American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases (AASLD), European Association for the Study of the Liver (EASL), and British Association for the Study of the Liver (BASL). Two reviewers familiar with structured literature searches and the therapy area assessed evidence independently and analyzed data. A total of 597 articles (PubMed =457, Web of Science =110, and Cochrane =30) and 443 abstracts (AASLD 2017=335, EASL 2017=64, and BASL 2017=44) were screened for relevance (Figure 1). Studies were included if they described effective practice or policy interventions in improving care generally or for HCV specifically in people with a history of injecting drugs and OUD. Evidence from the literature review was then prioritized to identify most important practical steps to improve HCV care for people with OUD. Priorities were chosen by the authors (all with extensive clinical experience in HCV or OUD care) based on the opinion of potential impact. Interventions described in 57 studies, including 22 full research articles, 5 reviews, 23 abstracts/posters from conferences, and 7 consensus recommendations were chosen for analysis.

Table 1 Summary of keywords used in literature search

Abbreviation: HCV, hepatitis C virus; IDU, injecting drug users; PWID, people who inject drugs.


A series of possible options for improving OUD care at each stage of the patient journey were defined based on an analysis of evidence obtained from the literature search and analysis (Table 2). Studies showing effective practical interventions for improving HCV care in such populations are summarized in Table 2. Results are described according to steps on the patient journey.

Table 2 Summary of effective practical interventions in improving HCV care in patients with a history of injecting drugs and OUD

Abbreviations: APRI, aspartate aminotransferase-to-platelet ratio index; AUD, Australian dollars; DBST, dried blood spot testing; GP, general physician; HCPs, health care professionals; HBV, hepatitis B virus; HCV, hepatitis C virus; IDU, injecting drug users; LDV/SOF/RBV, Ledipasvir/ Sofobuvir/ Ribavirin; NHS, National Health System; OAT, opioid agonist therapy; OST, opioid substitution therapy; OUD, opioid use disorder; PCPs, primary care physicians; PWID, people who inject drugs; SVR, sustained virologic response; SUD, substance use disorder; TE, transient elastography.

Possible tactics to improve patient outcomes


Low engagement may be addressed by education programs: for patients, options include brief group sessions at drug treatment services including workshops, Q&A sessions, leaflets, videos on the basics of HCV and risk behaviors for transmission, HCV treatment pathway, right of equal access,16,17 and interactive digital health decision aids.18 Education sessions for health care professionals (HCPs) directed in primary care19 and drug treatment services,17 and HCV awareness campaigns directed to the general public may be of benefit. Programs that actively seek patients such as pop-up and short-term services delivered by clinics in neighborhoods with high HCV prevalence are effective in promoting treatment engagement.20

Developing strong provider–patient relationships improves outcomes by creating an “enabling environment” and avoiding stigma.21,22 Peer support improves engagement with medical interventions23,24 and can address potential mistrust and fear of discrimination.25


Adoption of fast and effective screening methods improves efficiency. Dried blood spot testing (DBST) offers antibody testing and RNA confirmation in one step26 and can be effectively implemented in drug treatment services,2729 alcohol clinics, prisons, needle equipment services,28 or via out-reach mobile services.30 A pretesting questionnaire-based screening tool helps identify people who may benefit most from testing in primary care.31 Community-based active case finding with rapid antibody oral fluid test, either by peer facilitation32 or by temporary clinics,20 increases screening rate in high-risk populations. Targeted screening at general practices in areas of deprivation and high prevalence of injecting drug use,33 or at drug treatment services, increases screening outcomes. For people with a history of injecting drugs who tested negative, it is important to offer routine testing every 12 months and following any high-risk injecting episode.11,34

Work up/referral

Simplified work up with access to noninvasive methods such as transient elastography (TE) (also known as Fibroscan) and serum biomarker tests accelerates the workup process and enables triage for immediate care3537 implemented at drug treatment services, primary care, medically supervised injecting centers,38 street-based outreach programs, or in prison.37 Mobile TE further provides convenience in drug treatment services29 or in mobile out-reach programs for hard-to-reach populations of drug users, prisoners, homeless, and psychiatric patients30 or at primary care.39 Noninvasive serum biomarker tests also eliminate many of the concerns associated with liver biopsy.36 The aspartate aminotransferase-to-platelet ratio index (APRI), a calculated score predicting fibrosis,37 is an effective prescreening tool to reduce the number of patients requiring Fibroscan.37 Logistic support such as tailored flexible scheduling facilitates work up completion.40

A tailored approach with different options for engagement is most likely to be successful.40 Referral processes can be facilitated by education for HCP at drug treatment services17 and primary care;19 support from peer mentors facilitates linkage to start HCV treatment.41


A single-location clinic with access to a multidisciplinary team is effective in facilitating the progression from patient identification to HCV treatment.20,42 Integrated HCV treatment can be provided at primary care,39,43 drug treatment services,39,44 needle equipment services,45 or prison.46 It can be as a part of a traditional integrated treatment plan for OUD,47,48 or as a part of a combined program of integrated drug treatment, HCV, and needle equipment program,49,50 or for people who are actively injecting and not receiving integrated treatment for OUD.45 Addiction specialists based in HCV clinics51 or mobile teams for screening, diagnosis, and treatment may address underserved populations.30 Wider prescribing options for DAA including primary care physicians (PCPs) increases treatment access;43,52,53 treatment can be delivered in nurse-led drug treatment services,39,54 primary care,39,55,56 prison,57 or pharmacist-led clinics.58

Smartphone or desktop digital platforms assist clinical decision making and facilitate treatment initiation.59 Teleconsultation is effective in overcoming physical barriers of having to meet with the HCV specialists.60

Adherence to treatment can be facilitated with psychosocial support, such as continuous counseling,61 case management services, actively screening for psychiatric comorbidities with referral to mental health providers including co-located specialists at HCV clinics and referral to peer-support groups with OUD care and buddy systems. Shorter treatment duration tailored to the population of injecting drug users may be effective.62

Peer-led models combined with multidisciplinary care lead to improved knowledge, treatment uptake, and service provision.23,25 Contingency management, including monetary incentives, is effective in improving adherence to hepatitis B virus vaccination63 and promotes HCV treatment initiation41 among people with a history of injecting drugs. Developing or implementing existing national strategies, action plans, and guidelines for HCV treatment in people with a history of injecting drugs helps establish best practices.64

Re-infection risk is limited by long-term follow-up with access to multidisciplinary care and harm reduction services after HCV treatment.6567 Regular HCV testing after the treatment and analysis of risk factors for re-infection is helpful for early engagement for potential interventions.5,11,68,69


DAA regimens offer the possibility of cure for HCV. People with a history of injecting drugs and OUD represent a major group requiring HCV treatment but find it hard to access care. It is the opinion of the authors that it is essential, now, to address limits to therapy access if HCV treatment uptake is to be available to all and eradication of the infection is to be achieved. Many citizens with great need for HCV therapy cannot navigate pathways to get the HCV care they need. Law, policy, and guidelines in many European countries defines the equality of access to health care for all citizens and increasingly for HCV treatment – it is the reality that despite this and if action is not taken, many with the greatest needs will not be able to access proven treatment for a serious condition.

This structured assessment identifies practical steps from published evidence, which can improve HCV care in people with a history of OUD. Recommendations for practical steps to improve care are shown in Figure 2 and summarized here:

  1. Provide peer-led education for patients with OUD including updates on HCV and liver health, DAA therapy, right of equal access to therapy, and how to navigate treatment pathways.17,18,70
  2. Develop “enabling” provider–patient relationships22,71,72 to support HCV treatment pathway navigation.19,73
  3. Standardize HCV referral procedure based on the understanding of starting points and treatment location options and use supportive networks (eg, peer support, buddy systems, counseling) to encourage engagement.2325
  4. Provide “one stop” fast and easy screening services, providing all necessary diagnostic information.5,2729 Offer ongoing screening based on risk onsite or with “mobile” outreach.11,20,30,33,34
  5. Simplify work up to encourage attendance; develop local capability with noninvasive liver assessment within drug treatment clinics.29,36,38,70
  6. Make treatment easy with wide options for access to HCV care services. Implement wider prescription rights for PCP43,52 and care delivery by nurses and pharmacists in primary care, drug treatment services, and prison.39,43,54,57,58
  7. Provide integrated HCV care,5,11,39,42,47,51,74 set up joint local working teams of HCP and administration from OUD, HCV, and PCP services focused on HCV treatment.
  8. Review service results jointly to set standards of care and inform service development including “all under one roof” models and develop local guidelines to promote best practice.64
  9. Collect data to measure performance, indicate improvement potential, share results among local service providers and locations.
  10. Ensure continuing access to harm reduction to prevent reinfection; provide regular testing after treatment for the early engagement of potential interventions.5,11,6668,75

Figure 2 Practical recommendations for best practices of HCV treatment for people with OUD.

Note: A patient journey model, with steps of engagement, screening, workup/referral, and treatment, is used to structure practical recommendations.

Abbreviations: DAA, direct-acting antiviral; HCV, hepatitis C virus; HCP, health care professionals; PCP, primary care physician; OUD, opioid use disorder.

This recommendation is based on the clinical experience of clinicians with highly relevant long-term experience and interpretation of a review of current evidence. Evidence is collated from available published sources; this work is limited in this respect – in this evolving field, it is important to reconsider this work in the light of new evidence, in the future. Priorities are set based on clinical experience in Spain and observation of international practices. It is noted that the challenges for HCV and OUD treatment services are common in other countries12 and that the wide range of models of care and experience in managing HCV in Spain and its regions may be representative of the approach in many other countries. This work identifies practical steps based on clinical factors; there are other social and provider-related factors outside the scope of this article that are important to address in this population.


People with a history of injecting drugs engaged with OUD care services often face considerable barriers for HCV care. The recommendations advocated here for practical steps to improve care should be considered by all aiming to improve outcomes for marginalized populations who may find it difficult to access treatment for HCV.


APRI, aspartate aminotransferase-to-platelet ratio index; DAA, direct-acting antiviral; DBST, dried blood spot testing; HCPs, health care professionals; HCV, hepatitis C virus; OAT, opioid agonist therapy; OST, opioid substitution therapy; OUD, opioid use disorder; PCPs, primary care physicians; TE, transient elastography; IDU, injecting drug users; PWID, people who inject drugs.


The authors are grateful for the editorial contribution of Dr L Li, T Lumley, C Corte, and G Myers. This work was funded by Gilead Sciences. Gilead had no influence on the development, research, or writing of the manuscript.


Dr Carlos Roncero received honoraria from Janssen-Cilag, Ferrer-Brainfarma, Pfizer, Reckitt-Benckiser/Indivior, Lundbeck, Otsuka, Servier, Shire, Lilly, GSK, Astra, Gilead, and MSD. Dr Pablo Ryan received honoraria from Merck, Gilead, and ViiV and received a research grant from Merck Sharpe & Dohme (MISP IIS # 54846). Dr Richard Littlewood received consulting fees from Gilead. Dr Juan Ruiz received honoraria from Janssen-Cilag, Pfizer, Reckitt-Benckiser/Indivior, Lundbeck, and Gilead. The other authors report no conflicts of interest in this work.



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