Editorials: Controversies in Family Medicine

Should Family Physicians Routinely Screen Patients for Hepatitis C?

No: One-time Screening Still Has Too Many Unanswered Questions


Am Fam Physician. 2016 Jan 1;93(1):17-18.

  Related editorial: Should Family Physicians Routinely Screen Patients for Hepatitis C? Yes: Screening Makes Sense for High-Risk Adults

  Related article: Diagnosis and Management of Hepatitis C

This is one in a series of pro/con editorials discussing controversial issues in family medicine.

Of the estimated 2.7 million persons in the United States with chronic hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection in 2010,1 fewer than 200,000 were successfully diagnosed and treated, with success defined as a sustained viral response (SVR) or clearance of HCV at least three months after discontinuing therapy.2 Why so few? First, many persons with HCV infection do not develop liver failure for up to 30 years, if ever, and therefore treatment was reserved for patients with evidence of progressive fibrosis or with higher risk of HCV progression (e.g., patients with coexisting human immunodeficiency virus infection). Second, interferon-based HCV therapies had bothersome adverse effects, leading to high discontinuation rates, and often did not clear the virus.3 Finally, few primary care physicians felt comfortable treating these patients.

In a recent issue of American Family Physician, Wilkins and colleagues provided a timely update on screening, diagnosis, and management of chronic HCV infection.4 Much has changed on this topic over the past few years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force now both recommend one-time screening of all persons born between 1945 and 1965, regardless of risk factors.5 Several studies have demonstrated SVR rates of more than 90% in patients receiving interferon-free combination regimens.6 Also, the Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes) model tested in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah demonstrated that with appropriate training, HCV infection treatment managed by a primary care clinician produced similar outcomes as treatment managed by an infectious disease or gastrointestinal subspecialist.7,8

Expanded screening and effective treatments that can be safely prescribed in primary care settings have the potential to substantially reduce the public health burden of HCV infection over the coming years. However, the new treatments are hugely expensive. For example, the approximate price of a single 12-week course of sofosbuvir (Sovaldi), which costs about $100 to manufacture, is $84,000. At this price, treating all persons with HCV infections in the United States could end up costing $250 billion, which amounts to nearly $1 out of every $10 dollars spent on health care nationally.9,10 Treatment could conceivably be cost-effective in the long term if it prevents morbidity and costs associated with cirrhosis and hepatocellular cancer.11,12 However, even using stricter guidelines for treatment eligibility, the cost of shorter-term HCV treatment threatens to overwhelm the budgets of private and public payers.12

Medicare spent an estimated $9.2 billion on drugs for HCV in 2015, which is nearly twice as much as it spent in 2014 and represents 7% of all Medicare drug spending.13,14 Because most of the screening cohort born between 1945 and 1965 is younger than 65 years, HCV-related spending is likely to increase over the next few years.

There are also good reasons to wonder if spending additional billions of dollars on HCV screening and treatment will actually improve patient-oriented outcomes that matter. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force acknowledges the absence of health outcomes data on new treatments and relied on a “chain of evidence” to conclude with moderate certainty that birth cohort screening has a net benefit, reasoning that if selected patients who achieved SVR with older HCV therapies had better long-term outcomes than patients who did not, then newer medications with higher SVR rates should also be effective.15 However, the absence of randomized trials testing expanded HCV screening strategies is concerning, because any potential benefits need to be weighed against the harms that would occur in approximately four out of five patients with HCV infection who would do well without any treatment.16 As for the CDC, nine out of the 34 members of the working group that recommended expanded screening in 2012 disclosed financial conflicts of interest, and the CDC Foundation has received more than $26 million in donations since 2010 from corporations that produce HCV tests or treatments.17

In summary, recent innovations in identification and management of patients with HCV infection have left family physicians facing important unanswered questions. Is it worthwhile to modify practice workflows to prioritize screening for HCV in middle-aged and older adults without any known risk factors, who are more likely to be at risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer than HCV infection? In persons who test positive for HCV, who should be treated or referred for treatment, knowing that many will not benefit? Given current scientific uncertainties, limited resources, and evolving guidelines, a reasonable middle ground would be for family physicians to collaborate with subspecialty colleagues and focus HCV testing and therapy on patients who are most likely to have long-term complications from the infection, such as those with human immunodeficiency virus infection or type 2 diabetes mellitus,18 rather than instituting more broad screening and treating everyone who tests positive.

editor's note: Kenneth W. Lin, MD, MPH, is the associate deputy editor for AFP Online.

Author disclosure: No relevant financial affiliations.

Address correspondence to Kenneth W. Lin, MD, MPH, at kenneth.lin@georgetown.edu. Reprints are not available from the author.


show all references

1. Denniston MM, Jiles RB, Drobeniuc J, et al. Chronic hepatitis C virus infection in the United States. Ann Intern Med. 2014;160(5):293–300....

2. Holmberg SD, Spradling PR, Moorman AC, Denniston MM. Hepatitis C in the United States. N Engl J Med. 2013; 368(20):1859–1861.

3. Wilkins T, Malcolm JK, Raina D, Schade RR. Hepatitis C: diagnosis and treatment. Am Fam Physician. 2010;81(11):1351–1357.

4. Wilkins T, et al. Diagnosis and management of hepatitis C. Am Fam Physican. 2015;91(12):835–842.

5. Ngo-Metzger Q, Ward JW, Valdiserri RO. Expanded hepatitis C virus screening recommendations promote opportunities for care and cure. Ann Intern Med. 2013;159(5):364–365.

6. Liang TJ, Ghany MG. Therapy of hepatitis C—back to the future. N Engl J Med. 2014;370(21):2043–2047.

7. Arora S, Thornton K, Murata G, et al. Outcomes of treatment for hepatitis C virus infection by primary care providers. N Engl J Med. 2011;364(23):2199–2207.

8. Mitruka K, Thornton K, Cusick S, et al. Expanding primary care capacity to treat hepatitis C virus infection through an evidence-based care model. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2014;63(18):393–398.

9. Steinbrook R, Redberg RF. The high price of the new hepatitis C virus drugs. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(7):1172.

10. Brennan T, Shrank W. New expensive treatments for hepatitis C infection. JAMA. 2014;312(6):593–594.

11. Najafzadeh F, Andersson K, Shrank WH, et al. Cost-effectiveness of novel regimens for the treatment of hepatitis C virus. Ann Intern Med. 2015;162(6):407–419.

12. Chhatwal J, Kanwal F, Roberts MS, Dunn MA. Cost-effectiveness and budget impact of hepatitis C virus treatment with sofosbuvir and ledipasvir in the United States. Ann Intern Med. 2015;162(6):397–406.

13. Ornstein C. Medicare spending for hepatitis C cures surges. October 16, 2015. ProPublica. http://www.propublica.org/article/medicare-spending-for-hepatitis-c-cures-surges. Accessed October 21, 2015.

14. Alonso-Zaldivar R. APNewsBreak: Medicare spending $9B on hepatitis C drugs. November 13, 2015. U.S. News and World Report. http://www.usnews.com/news/business/articles/2015/11/13/apnewsbreak-medicare-spending-9b-on-hepatitis-c-drugs. Accessed November 17, 2015.

15. Moyer VA. Screening for hepatitis C virus infection in adults: U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendation statement. Ann Intern Med. 2013;159(5):349–357.

16. Koretz RL, et al. Is widespread screening for hepatitis C justified? BMJ. 2015;350:g7809.

17. Lenzer J. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: protecting the private good? BMJ. 2015;350:h2362.

18. Livingston SE, et al. Factors associated with the progression of fibrosis on liver biopsy in Alaska Native and American Indian persons with chronic hepatitis C. Can J Gastroenterol. 2010;24(7):445–451.

A collection of Editorials: Controversies in Family Medicine published in AFP is available at http://www.aafp.org/afp/pro-con.


Copyright © 2016 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
This content is owned by the AAFP. A person viewing it online may make one printout of the material and may use that printout only for his or her personal, non-commercial reference. This material may not otherwise be downloaded, copied, printed, stored, transmitted or reproduced in any medium, whether now known or later invented, except as authorized in writing by the AAFP. Contact afpserv@aafp.org for copyright questions and/or permission requests.

Want to use this article elsewhere? Get Permissions

CME Quiz

More in Pubmed


Jan 15, 2017

Access the latest issue of American Family Physician

Read the Issue

Email Alerts

Don't miss a single issue. Sign up for the free AFP email table of contents.

Sign Up Now

Navigate this Article