An investigation by the Pharmaceutical Journal has found that less than one in ten pharmacies in England have registered to deliver the new Hepatitis C Antibody Testing Service in its first year.
Only 662 community pharmacies out of more than 11,800 in England have registered to deliver the service since it was launched in September 2020, according to figures provided by NHS England in response to a freedom of information (FOI) request by the journal. 679 community pharmacies had initially registered to deliver the service between its launch and 22 August 2021, but 17 later de-registered.
The FOI request also revealed that participating community pharmacies had carried out just 119 hepatitis C antibody tests since the service’s launch. An estimated 89,000 people have chronic hepatitis C in England, many from the most marginalised and underserved groups in society.
The Hepatitis C Antibody Testing Service allows community pharmacies to offer testing for the hepatitis C virus to people who inject drugs, but who are not currently accessing community drug and alcohol treatment services.
Representatives for community pharmacies have acknowledged that disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has been an issue, but The Hepatitis C Trust and other experts have also raised questions about why community pharmacies are not allowed to test people who inject drugs and are engaged with opiate substitution therapy services at another care provider.
Ryan Buchanan, Associate Professor of Hepatology at the University of Southampton, said: “It’s that cohort [of opiate substitution patients] that community pharmacists have a fantastic relationship with because they are sometimes picking up their methadone every day and they’re often waiting there for the pharmacist to dispense their methadone, so there’s an opportunity to do the test”.
Rachel Halford, Chief Executive of The Hepatitis C Trust, said:
“Community pharmacies provide a fantastic opportunity to reach a wide range of people potentially affected by hepatitis C. This includes – but is not limited to – those who are using drugs but are not currently receiving drug treatment.
“The NHS Hepatitis C Antibody Testing Service should not exclude people accessing opioid substitution therapy simply because they are engaged with another care provider: we cannot assume that everyone accessing drug treatment is being tested regularly. And there are many other people who could benefit from pharmacy testing: people born in countries where hepatitis C is common, who’ve had medical treatment overseas, or who injected drugs many years ago, for example. Not offering testing to everyone who needs it is a wasted opportunity.
“Pharmacies are also now beginning to offer hepatitis C treatment. If we are going to meet the NHS England target to eliminate hepatitis C by 2025, we need to make access to testing and treatment in the community much easier. Decentralising hepatitis C treatment and embedding this in community services such as pharmacies offers easier access and a shorter care pathway for patients, while allowing hospitals to focus their resource on the NHS COVID recovery. It’s a win-win.”
If you need more information about how to access testing, please call our helpline. It is staffed by patients who all have or have had hepatitis C. They can be reached on 020 7089 6221 (10.30am to 4.30pm Monday to Friday). Alternatively, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org and we will answer any questions you may have.