The recently announced $1 billion Government spend on breakthrough hepatitis C treatments is a major milestone that gives hope to the 230,000 Australia’s living with the disease. The aim is to eradicate hepatitis C within a generation in what has been billed as the biggest PBS announcement since the HPV National Immunization Program.
This Government investment in new treatments for hepatitis C is a major step in the right direction. But while the supply side of treatment has been greatly improved by this announcement, there is still much work needed on the demand side that can be supported by effective health communications.
Australia has a relatively high rate of hepatitis C diagnosis (above the UK and US), but only around 2% of people with the hepatitis C virus (HCV) present for treatment each year. Therefore, a key challenge is to encourage more people with HCV to seek the latest medical advice and present for treatment. But this is a complex and multi-faceted problem that requires a firm grasp of the disease and patient behaviour.
The hepatitis C population in Australia is heterogeneous and the barriers to treatment are numerous. The new hepatitis C treatments that will become available on the PBS from 1st March will remove the barriers of side effects and poor efficacy, but there are still many other barriers at the individual level. These include current lifestyle, perceived stigma, work, finance, cultural background, and attitudes to treatment.
A decision to seek treatment might be triggered by the person’s disease stage, changes in life circumstances, stigma reappraisal, awareness of new treatments, and ease of access to professional advice and support. Health communications can help create the right environment and, in turn, increase patient demand for these new treatments.
Hepatitis Australia and state affiliates are doing fantastic work with limited resources, bringing together Government, hospitals, clinicians, community organisations and private industry. The challenge they face is reaching those most likely to seek treatment using the finite resources available.
Traditional disease awareness tactics such as advertising and media coverage will go some way to reaching people with HCV (or at least those seeking new information). But due to the complex nature of the disease, there is also a need to segment the patient population and find innovative ways to engage the target groups most likely to seek treatments. To assist, the Theory of Planned Behaviour Model is a great way to understand the triggers that will most likely drive behavioural change in segmented audiences.
An effective communications program can have both “upstream” cost-saving potential and “downstream” capacity to improve quality of life for patients. To reach people with HCV, a focus on the core benefits of better health and longer life expectancy, coupled with improved healthcare professional support is likely to help.
Encouraging more diagnosed HCV patients to present for treatment is a complex issue that lies at the heart of Australia’s low treatment numbers. New treatments improve the supply side (although there are still bottlenecks in the hepatitis C treatment pathway). But the demand side needs attention with effective use of health communications grounded in an understanding of patient behaviour.