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The burden of liver disease on the NHS is a ticking time bomb

iStock / Getty Images Plus / Shidlovski

Dominique Legros

CEO, Echosens

European livers are bearing the brunt of an above-average alcohol consumption. Liver disease is on the rise and likely to keep going. However, technology exists that can identify liver disease and potentially help GPs and practitioners intervene in the nick of time.

Why is early detection of liver diseases important?

Many kinds of liver disease are what we call ‘silent’ diseases – in that patients may not present with specific symptoms until things have got to the cirrhosis stage, which is end-stage liver disease. At that point, the condition is incredibly difficult to treat, which often leads to life-threatening complications such as liver cancer and internal bleeding.

Difficulty and cost of treating someone with end-stage liver disease are the two key challenges. For example, transplants are costly procedures, pose a greater risk to the patient and put incredible strain on the body.

What are the risk factors associated with developing liver disease?

There are two types of liver disease – viral and non-viral (linked to diet, alcohol consumption and lifestyle) and risk factors associated with both. Those who drink excessive amounts of alcohol, have diabetes, hypertension or those who are overweight are the most at risk. With rates of obesity and alcohol consumption growing, especially within Europe, raising awareness of the risks people pose to their own liver is key.

VCTE™ scanners can now measure liver ‘stiffness’. Even small amounts of stiffness can be a sign of liver disease.

What is the role of primary care in the early detection of liver disease? 

Primary care workers have a vital role in increasing early detection. There is a need to better educate all practitioners on the importance of this, but to also give them the tools and the ability to make a clinical diagnosis without the need to refer the patient to hospital.

To support that effort, accurate screening tools like VCTE™ scanners are being brought into the primary care community. These, along with blood tests, give practitioners the ability to make early diagnoses and consider interventions to prevent the disease progressing to more severe stages, such as cirrhosis.   

The VCTE™ scanner works by measuring liver ‘stiffness’.

What are the advantages of VCTE™ scans over other methods of identifying liver disease?

Measuring liver ‘stiffness’ in this way gives practitioners the ability to make a clinical diagnosis, without the need to perform a more invasive test on the patient.

The industry standard method for measuring either the presence or severity of liver disease is to perform a liver biopsy, however it is a costly and invasive procedure that requires trained physicians and a hospital visit.

Since the VCTE™ scanner came onto the market in 2003, liver biopsies have become far less common. Other non invasive alternatives are now widely available to test the liver

The VCTE™ scanner is able to measure both liver stiffness and the amount of fat in the liver. Patients who drink excessive alcohol may well develop this ‘fatty’ liver. This isn’t yet liver disease, but those patients stand at risk chance of developing liver disease if this is the case.

Who will benefit from a non-invasive liver test?

It’s clear[1] that obesity and alcohol consumption are problems that are getting worse, not better.

In Europe, where alcohol consumption per capita is the highest in the world, a huge percentage of the population is putting themselves at a greater risk, without necessarily knowing it.

VCTE™ scanners allow practitioners, within minutes, to tell patients if they are either at risk of developing liver disease – or they already have it. From there, there are more options available, in terms of stemming the development of liver disease.

[1] Lancet Report (2019)

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