A federally funded project in New York to test the value of telemedicine in treating patients dealing with substance abuse and the hepatitis C virus (HCV) is expanding following promising results.

Seven opioid treatment programs, comprising 12 locations, are joining the research study, which was launched in 2016 by the State University of New York at Buffalo with $7 million in grant funding from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI). The five-year project aims to compare virtual care with in-person care in using medication assisted treatment (MAT) therapy.

The project targets an elusive and especially underserved population. Some 5 million people in the U.S. are infected by HCV, with a large percentage contracting the virus through drug use and as many as 70 percent classified as chronically infected. Without proper treatment, HCV can lead to chronic liver disease, liver fibrosis, cirrhosis, liver cancer and death.

The current standard of treatment for drug users with HCV involves a visit to a methadone clinic, followed by a referral to a liver specialist for continued care. Many patients ignore those referrals, often because they don’t trust doctors, or they’ll follow through with an appointment but don’t follow a prescribed care plan. Researchers are hoping that a video visit arranged at the methadone clinic improves that level of trust, and thus boosts patient adherence to a care management plan and clinical outcomes.