Fewer GI Docs, More Alcohol-Associated Liver Disease Deaths

Laird Harrison

August 16, 2022

People are more likely to die of alcohol-associated liver disease (ALD) when there are fewer gastroenterologists in their state, researchers say.

The finding raises questions about steps that policymakers could take to increase the number of gastroenterologists and spread them more evenly around the United States.

"We found that there's a fivefold difference in density of gastroenterologists through different states," said Brian P. Lee, MD, MAS, an assistant professor of clinical medicine at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

Lee and colleagues published their finding in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology.

ALD is becoming more common, and it is killing more people. Research among veterans has linked visits to gastroenterologists to a lower risk for death from liver disease.

To see whether that correlation applies more broadly, Lee and colleagues compared multiple datasets. One from the US Health Resources & Service Administration provided the number of gastroenterologists per 100,000 population. The other from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided ALD-related deaths per 1,000,000 adults for each state and the District of Columbia.

The researchers adjusted for many variables that could affect the relationship between the availability of gastroenterologists and deaths related to ALD, including the age distribution of the population in each state, the gender balance, race and ethnicity, binge drinking, household income, obesity, and the proportion of rural residents.

They found that for every additional gastroenterologist, there is almost one fewer ALD-related death each year per 100,000 population (9.0 [95% CI, 1.3-16.7] fewer ALD-related deaths per 1,000,000 population for each additional gastroenterologist per 100,000 population).

The strength of the association appeared to plateau when there were at least 7.5 gastroenterologists per 100,000 people.

From these findings, the researchers calculated that as many as 40% of deaths from ALD nationwide could be prevented by providing more gastroenterologists in the places where they are lacking.

The mean number of gastroenterologists per 100,000 people in the United States was 4.6, and the annual ALD-related death rate was 85.6 per 1,000,000 people.

The Atlantic states had the greatest concentration of gastroenterologists and the lowest ALD-related mortality, whereas the Mountain states had the lowest concentration of gastroenterologists and the highest ALD-related mortality.

The lowest mortality related to ALD was in New Jersey, Maryland, and Hawaii, with 52 per 1,000,000 people, and the highest was in Wyoming, with 289.

Study Shines Spotlight on General GI Care

Access to liver transplants did not make a statistically significant difference in mortality from ALD.

"It makes you realize that transplant will only be accessible for really just a small fraction of the population who needs it," Lee told Medscape Medical News.

General gastroenterologic care appears to make a bigger difference in saving patients' lives. "Are they getting endoscopy for bleeding from varices?" Lee asked. "Are they getting appropriate antibiotics prescribed to prevent bacterial infection of ascites?"

The concentration of primary care physicians did not reduce mortality from ALD, and neither did the concentration of substance use, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors.

Previous research has shown that substance abuse therapy is effective. But many people do not want to undertake it, or they face barriers of transportation, language, or insurance, said Lee.

"I have many patients whose insurance will provide them access to medical visits to me but will not to substance use rehab, for example," he said.

To see whether the effect was more generally due to the concentration of medical specialists, the researchers examined the state-level density of ophthalmologists and dermatologists. They found no significant difference in ALD-related mortality.

The finding builds on reports by the American Gastroenterological Association and the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases that the number of gastroenterologists has not kept up with the US population nor the burden of digestive diseases, and that predict a critical shortage in the future.

Overcoming Barriers to Care for Liver Disease

The overall supply of gastroenterologists could be increased by reducing the educational requirements and increasing the funding for fellowships, said Lee.

"We have to have a better understanding as to the barriers to gastroenterology practice in certain areas, then interventions to address those barriers and also incentives to attract gastroenterologists to those areas," Lee said.

The study underscores the importance of access to gastroenterological care, said George Cholankeril, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, who was not involved in the study. That urgency has only grown as ALD has spiraled up with the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

"Anyone in clinical practice right now will be able to say that there's been a clear rising tide of patients with alcohol-related liver disease," he told Medscape Medical News. "There's an urgent need to address this and provide the necessary resources."

Prevention remains essential, Cholankeril said.

Gastroenterologists and primary care physicians can help stem the tide of ALD by screening their patients for the disease through a tool like AUDIT (Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test), he said. They can then refer patients to substance abuse treatment centers or to psychologists and psychiatrists.

Lee and Cholankeril report no relevant financial relationships.

Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. Published online August 4, 2022. Abstract

Laird Harrison writes about science, health and culture. His work has appeared in national magazines, in newspapers, on public radio and on websites. He is at work on a novel about alternate realities in physics. Harrison teaches writing at the Writers Grotto. Visit him at www.lairdharrison.com or follow him on Twitter: @LairdH

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