Hepatitis C is the most common bloodborne infection in the United States. It is estimated that approximately 3.2 million people in the U.S. and 100,000 people in Arizona are chronically infected with the virus.

Historically, Hepatitis C patients living in rural areas have had to travel to a larger community with specialists for care. However, the increase in the number of chronic Hepatitis C cases inspired St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center and North Country HealthCare to develop a unique program in which rural medical providers are able to treat patients in their own communities.

"With nearly 1,000 Hepatitis C patients across the North Country HealthCare system, it's vitally important that we begin to grow our own Hepatitis C care capabilities. Our collaboration with St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center will enable us to do so," said Greg Hales, Telehealth Manager at North Country HealthCare.

This "tele-mentoring" program was developed by Ann Moore and Dr. Richard Manch, liver disease specialists at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center; and Dr. Eric Henley, Chief Medical Officer; Colleen Hopkins, Hepatitis C Program Coordinator; and Greg Hales at North Country HealthCare. Moore and Dr. Manch meet with North Country HealthCare medical providers weekly via video conference to review cases and monitor treatment.

North Country HealthCare and St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center have successfully trained medical providers in Show Low, Round Valley, St. Johns, Winslow, Kingman, Bullhead City, Ash Fork, Flagstaff and Grand Canyon to deliver Hepatitis C care at the local level. A total of 13 providers have begun treating patients.

North Country HealthCare's medical providers have been enthusiastic about the program and patients have been grateful to receive care in their own communities from medical staff that they already know. With a large number of untreated Hepatitis C patients in most communities, the availability of more effective and better tolerated medications and the scarcity of Hepatitis C specialists, this model of care has allowed North Country to address a significant medical problem.

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St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center received a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) national grant to assist community health centers treat Hepatitis C patients. Funding was also received from Vertex Pharmaceuticals. These funds will help North Country HealthCare support the care of uninsured Hepatitis C patients. This spring, the program hopes to expand to serve Mariposa Community Health Center patients in Nogales, Rio Rico and Patagonia.

In early February, North Country HealthCare's Hepatitis C program was given the Innovation Award at the Arizona Alliance for Community Health Centers' Annual Meeting. This award is presented annually to an individual or health center team that has demonstrated a truly innovative approach to enhancing primary care or the delivery of primary care. The winning project or initiative must involve breakthrough ideas and show potential for wider influence or for replications on a larger scale.

North Country HealthCare is proud to have received this award for a program that has the potential to help many people in the communities in which they serve.

Katie Brock is the Public Relations Coordinator at North Country HealthCare. Eric Henley is the Chief Medical Officer at North Country HealthCare.

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