From the Journals

Medicare claims review builds case for NAFLD/NASH screening



Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease isn’t being diagnosed early enough; by the time it’s caught, patients often have advanced complications such as decompensated cirrhosis or hepatocellular carcinoma, according a review of Medicare claims data from 2007-2015.

Among 10,826,456 enrollees – about 20% of the Medicare population – 621,253 had International Classification of Diseases codes for NAFLD/nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), yielding a prevalence of 5.7%. That’s substantially lower than modeling estimates of 30% in the general population, indicating that there is “considerable underdiagnosis of NAFLD in real-world clinical practice,” and that less severe disease, and the opportunity to treat it before it progresses, is being missed, said investigators led by Rohit Loomba, MD, director of the NAFLD Research Center at the University of California, San Diego, NAFLD Research Center (Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2020 May 5. doi: 10.1111/apt.15679).

When the team excluded patients with other causes of liver disease such as alcohol abuse or viral hepatitis, they were left with a study population of 260,950 subjects; 71.1% had NAFLD/NASH alone, and 28.9% had NAFLD cirrhosis, almost all of them first diagnosed with decompensated cirrhosis. More than half of the 581 hepatocellular carcinoma patients had no previous diagnosis of cirrhosis.

The cumulative risk of progression of NAFLD to cirrhosis over the 8-year study period was 39%, and from compensated cirrhosis to decompensated cirrhosis, it was 45%. Among a subgroup of 258 patients with compensated cirrhosis, 19% progressed to decompensated cirrhosis or hepatocellular carcinoma, or died, over a median of a year and a half.

The findings “highlight the urgent need for an algorithm to identify individuals at higher risk of NAFLD/NASH,” so the disease is caught at a point when lifestyle and medical interventions might halt or delay progression, the team said.

Screening isn’t currently recommended in guidelines because of the limited efficacy of current treatments, but “with promising novel NAFLD/NASH interventions currently under development and review,” the team said it might be time to rethink the issue.

The majority of patients with early NAFLD/NASH have nonspecific symptoms, which makes screening difficult. However, the investigators identified several independent predictors of disease progression and death, including cardiovascular disease – present among 68.7% of subjects – dyslipidemia (84.1%), diabetes (55.5%), and renal impairment (24.3%).

The finding “supports the evaluation of certain variables” in a screening algorithm, “including advanced age and certain components of metabolic syndrome. Furthermore, important variables in previously developed noninvasive NAFLD/NASH staging algorithms including body mass index and biomarkers for liver function and insulin resistance may also warrant evaluation as components of an identification algorithm,” the team said.

It’s possible the study overestimated the risks of disease progression and mortality with NAFLD/NASH because patients with more severe disease were probably more likely to have been identified in Medicare data, the investigators said.

The mean age of the NAFLD/NASH subjects was 67.4 years, and 60% were women.

The work was funded by Gilead, which has several drugs under development for NAFLD/NASH. Two authors are Gilead employees, and the rest, including Dr. Loomba, reported funding and other ties to the company.

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SOURCE: Loomba R et al. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2020 May 5. doi: 10.1111/apt.15679.

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