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Victoria Rykaczewski ’19 works with Hudson Headwaters on health care issues in the Adirondacks

By Upstate Institute on July 1, 2017

As a Fellow with the Upstate Institute Field School this summer, I have had the opportunity to work with Hudson Headwaters Health Network on a number of community health initiatives addressing ongoing public health issues within the local community. Hudson Headwaters is a not-for-profit community healthcare system, comprised of 17 community health centers covering more than 5,000 square miles of the Adirondack North Country and Glens Falls region. For many communities in the region, Hudson Headwaters is the only medical provider serving this rural, medically underserved area, making it an important “safety-net” provider for the region. The founding mission of Hudson Headwaters is “to provide the best health care, and access to that care, for everyone in our communities.” In pursuit of this mission, Hudson Headwaters has continued to be a leader in rural healthcare systems, working with community partners to develop innovative public health programs that increase access to quality healthcare and meet the evolving needs of the local community. I have had the opportunity to work on a couple of these projects, focusing on expanding access to treatment, continuing community outreach and education, and developing relationships with community partners.

The first project I am working on is the expansion of Hudson Headwater’s ongoing hepatitis C treatment program. Hepatitis C is a bloodborne virus that causes liver inflammation that can lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer if left untreated. Killing more Americans every year than every other infectious disease combined, hepatitis C is the deadliest infectious disease in the United States, despite the availability of an effective curative drug treatment. An estimated 3.5 million people in the United States are currently living with chronic hepatitis C, however, the vast majority of these people are unaware they are infected until their liver is already severely damaged because the infection is usually asymptomatic. Additionally, unlike hepatitis A and B, there is currently no vaccine for hepatitis C. This makes it incredibly important that patients with certain risk factors are tested for hepatitis C at least once in their lifetime. (To see if you should be tested for hepatitis, ask your primary care provider or complete the CDC’s hepatitis risk assessment here: https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/riskassessment/). In an effort to identify these patients with hepatitis C and thus prevent the further spread of the disease, I am working with Hudson Headwaters to design a public awareness campaign regarding hepatitis C, and Hudson Headwaters is asking its providers to prioritize testing for hepatitis C in patients with certain risk factors.

In addition to testing for hepatitis C, Hudson Headwaters is also expanding their treatment program for patients identified as having the disease. Recent advances in hepatitis C research have resulted in new, curative drug treatments that are incredibly effective and well-tolerated. These new treatment options have enabled providers to better treat patients and reach patients previously considered untreatable. In order to identify patients that could be good candidates for this treatment program, I am reviewing the network’s electronic databases and patient medical records and then facilitating the patient outreach to set up an appointment with one of the prescribing providers. I am also organizing current patient data so that providers can more easily track the lab results and treatment outcomes of their patients. Additionally, Hudson Headwaters is collaborating with Mount Sinai Medical Center, using their electronic database HepCure, which can assist providers in determining the best treatment plan for their patients and collect data that can eventually be used to produce research regarding the treatment of hepatitis C and, more generally, healthcare delivery in rural communities.

The second major project I am working on this summer is Hudson Headwater’s Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) program, which aids the treatment of patients currently suffering from opioid addiction by using Suboxone, a prescription drug used to mitigate the symptoms of withdrawal, in concert with behavioral health counseling services. The growing opioid epidemic is a health crisis that has continued to affect communities across this country, particularly affecting rural communities like the Adirondack North Country. Given its location and role as the primary care provider for the region, Hudson Headwaters is ideally situated to address this growing problem. As part of this effort, I conducted a review of Hudson Headwater’s patient population currently taking Suboxone and the current patient referral system. In an effort to expand and improve their current MAT program, I am also helping Hudson Headwaters reach out to local community organizations and other regional health care providers to develop long-term partnerships that will help these organizations share resources and expertise, enabling everyone to work together in order to better confront this growing health issue.

Hudson Headwater’s founding mission to provide access to the best healthcare is the driving force behind every one of these initiatives. While seemingly small, efforts like these can have incredible results in local communities – results I have seen first-hand. With the support of the Upstate Institute and their continued commitment to engaging Colgate students in community-based research, I have had the opportunity to pursue my interests in public health and public policy and sharpen my skills in data analysis, project management, and community engagement, all while using my education to make a positive difference in my local community.

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