New guidelines developed help improve the use of liver blood tests in patients with liver disease. These guidelines can also prevent unnecessary repetition of tests, reveals a new study.
The study was led by experts at the University of Birmingham and the recommendations were published in Gut.
While the number of deaths from other common conditions is falling in the UK, those due to liver disease have been increasing dramatically, with a 400 percent increase in death rates between 1970 and 2010. Death rates due to liver disease has also risen sharply in younger people, with a 500 percent increase in the same period for those aged under 65.
"Since the current liver blood tests were developed in the 1950s, they have been the mainstay of liver disease identification. Unfortunately the way liver blood tests are interpreted means that many patients with liver disease are not identified until at a late stage.
"Liver blood or function tests are checked ever more frequently in both primary and secondary care in an attempt to exclude liver disease, for the monitoring of potential adverse effects of drugs on the liver such as statins, and for the investigation of the generally unwell patient.
"These tests often produce an abnormal result, the clinical significance of which is unclear.
"In many cases they are requested in response to non-specific symptoms where there is little potential link between symptoms and likelihood of liver disease, or the blood tests are performed for unrelated reasons such as chronic disease monitoring.
"This frequently leads to a cycle of additional liver blood test testing in an otherwise asymptomatic individual. Notably, many patients referred to hospital with abnormal liver tests do not have any evidence of significant liver disease."
The new guidelines, which cover both adults and children, recommend that initial investigation in patients with potential liver disease should include bilirubin, albumin, ALT, alkaline phosphatase (ALP) and gamma-glutamyltransferase (GGT) plus a complete blood count.
They also include definitions for 'abnormal' blood tests and advise when patients should have liver blood tests, as well as offering advice on pathways and tools for managing patients with abnormal test results.
Professor Newsome adds, "The pathways will be freely disseminated and should be incorporated into primary care IT systems to allow automatic calculation of risk scores when appropriate, to ensure recommendations can be put into practice."
They also state that research is needed to establish the most cost-effective approach to identify patients with alcohol-related liver disease and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease at risk of having advanced liver fibrosis.
The recommendations now supersede earlier guidelines in 2000 and were commissioned by the Clinical Services and Standards Committee of the British Society of Gastroenterology.