Background: Infection with the hepatitis C virus (HCV) is an emerging health problem in the United States. Management of this condition in asymptomatic patients remains controversial.
Methods: A questionnaire was mailed in November 1997 to all primary care physicians caring for adults (internists and family physicians) in an integrated health delivery system regarding the current approach to screening, diagnosis, and management of HCV infection. Charts of patients whose tests were positive for HCV were audited in selected practice sites to document care received by those patients.
Results: Most physicians (70%) reported ordering alanine aminotransferase (ALT) measurements to screen for HCV infection as part of a complete checkup. Each physician diagnosed an average of 3.1 new cases of HCV infection per year. Patients received widely divergent advice regarding prognosis, precautions to prevent transmission, and treatment. More than one half of the physicians advised their patients that the condition was serious (68%) and to abstain from alcohol (56%) and use condoms in monogamous relationships (62%). In caring for HCV-positive patients, more than three quarters of physicians reported recommending a liver biopsy to patients who had elevated ALT levels, and observing clinically, without liver biopsy, those patients who had normal ALT levels. A chart audit, however, showed less-aggressive intervention. Approximately one third of HCV-positive patients with elevated ALT levels had been seen by a gastroenterologist and had had a liver biopsy. Physicians in practice longer were less likely to recommend treatment with interferon-alpha. Of those patients whose physicians reported they would recommend biopsy and treatment with interferon-alpha, only 36% had a documented liver biopsy in their charts, and 29% had documented interferon-alpha treatment. Only 1.6% and 3.0% of patients, respectively, had received the recommended hepatitis A and hepatitis B vaccines.
Conclusions: Approaches to screening, diagnosis, and management of HCV infection by primary care physicians vary greatly. There appears to be a considerable population of patients in primary care settings who continue to receive conservative management of asymptomatic HCV infection.