Primary care doctors and nurse practitioners can successfully treat people with hepatitis C

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Direct-acting antiviral therapy for hepatitis C delivered by non-specialists such as primary care physicians and nurse practitioners is safe and effective – even for the most difficult-to-treat patients – and could potentially help increase the number of people receiving treatment, according to findings from the ASCEND study presented at the recent Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI 2016) in Boston.

Interferon-based therapy for hepatitis C is long and difficult and can cause side-effects that lead many patients to stop treatment prematurely. It also requires expertise to determine who needs treatment due to progressive liver disease and when to discontinue therapy that is likely to be futile, as it only produces a cure about half the time. The advent of direct-acting antivirals increased the emphasis on viral load monitoring and drug-resistance mutations. As such, treatment in the interferon era was generally managed by specialists such as hepatologists or gastroenterologists, later joined by infectious disease doctors.

Interferon-free direct-acting antiviral regimens have made treatment much easier, better tolerated and more effective. Most people can now be cured with 12 or even 8 weeks of therapy and side-effects are generally mild. The latest EASL guidelines and AASLD/IDSA guidelines recommend that everyone with chronic hepatitis C should be considered for treatment rather than waiting until they develop advanced liver disease. But challenges remain, including the high cost of therapy and the lack of enough specialists to treat everyone living with the disease.


sustained virological response (SVR)

The continued, long-term suppression of a virus as a result of treatment. In hepatitis C, refers to undetectable hepatitis C RNA after treatment has come to an end. Usually SVR refers to RNA remaining undetectable for 12 or 24 weeks after ending treatment and is considered to be a cure (SVR12 or SVR24).


A drug that acts against a virus or viruses.

direct-acting antiviral (DAA)

Modern drugs for the treatment of hepatitis C, which work directly against the hepatitis C virus. They stop the virus from reproducing by blocking certain steps in its lifecycle.

phase IV

Studies conducted after the effectiveness of a drug has been established and the drug marketed, typically to establish the frequency of uncommon or unanticipated toxic effects. May be described as a phase IV study or as postmarketing surveillance.


To eliminate a disease or a condition in an individual, or to fully restore health. A cure for HIV infection is one of the ultimate long-term goals of research today. It refers to a strategy or strategies that would eliminate HIV from a person’s body, or permanently control the virus and render it unable to cause disease. A ‘sterilising’ cure would completely eliminate the virus. A ‘functional’ cure would suppress HIV viral load, keeping it below the level of detection without the use of ART. The virus would not be eliminated from the body but would be effectively controlled and prevented from causing any illness. 

Sarah Kattakuzhy of the University of Maryland and colleagues conducted a longitudinal trial to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of hepatitis C treatment driven by primary care providers.

This open-label, phase 4 trial enrolled 600 chronic hepatitis C patients at three community health centres in Washington, DC, who started treatment between May and November 2015.

About 70% were men, almost all (96%) were African American, the average age was about 59 years and nearly a quarter were co-infected with HIV. A majority (72%) had hard-to-treat HCV genotype 1a (the rest had 1b), 18% had prior hepatitis C treatment experience and 20% had compensated liver cirrhosis.

Participants were allocated in a non-randomised manner to receive treatment managed by either a hepatologist or infectious disease specialist (n = 294), a primary care physician (n = 156) or a nurse practitioner (n = 150). Providers underwent a uniform three-hour training on the AASLD/IDSA guidelines.

All patients were treated with sofosbuvir/ledipasvir (the drugs in Harvoni) according to label directions. Only 29 (5%) qualified for 8 weeks of treatment, with the rest assigned to 12 weeks (90%) or 24 weeks (5%).

The primary outcome was sustained virological response, or undetectable HCV RNA at 12 weeks after completion of treatment (SVR12). Efficacy was reported for 304 people with available SVR12 data, and follow-up is ongoing. Adherence was reported for 409 participants who completed 12 weeks of treatment, using a composite of adherence at weeks 4, 8 and 12.

Overall, 49 patients discontinued treatment early, mostly due to loss to follow-up (31 people).

The overall SVR12 rate was 93.8% in an interim, per-protocol analysis of 304 patients with available data. There were no significant differences in SVR12 rates according to provider type: 96.7% (58 of 60) for those treated by primary care physicians, 94.9% (75 of 79) treated by nurse practitioners and 92.1% (152 of 165) treated by specialists.

HIV co-infection status had no impact on overall SVR12 (92.0%) or SVR12 by provider type (89.0%, 90.9% and 93.0%, respectively).

However, among the 409 patients who completed 12 weeks of therapy, adherence was significantly higher among people treated by nurse practitioners (51.4%) or primary care physicians (49.0%) compared to specialists (19.2%).

"The ASCEND investigation demonstrates that HCV treatment administered independently by primary care providers and nurse practitioners is safe and equally effective as care observed with experienced specialists, inclusive of challenging subpopulations of the epidemic, and within the largest African-American cohort described to date," the researchers concluded.

"The ASCEND model could increase the availability of community-based, non-specialist providers to significantly expand the scale of HCV therapy, and bridge existing gaps in the hepatitis C care cascade," they added.


Kattakuzhy SM et al. High efficacy of HCV treatment by primary care providers: the ASCEND study. Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI), Boston, abstract 538LB, 2016.

View the abstract on the conference website.