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More Than One-Third of Patients Diagnosed With Hepatocellular Carcinoma as Outpatients Have Diagnostic Delays

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Key Points

  • A study of 457 patients with cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma found that nearly 20% wait more than 3 months from presentation to diagnosis, which can contribute to interval tumor growth.
  • Diagnostic delays exceeding 3 months are particularly common among those diagnosed as outpatients, occurring in more than one-third.
  • Higher rates of diagnostic delays were observed among those diagnosed as outpatients who had hepatic encephalopathy (56% vs 35%).

Nearly 20% of patients with hepatocellular carcinoma “wait more than 3 months from presentation to diagnosis, which can contribute to interval tumor growth,” Patel et al concluded in the Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network. They based their conclusions on a review of records of consecutive patients with cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma at Parkland Memorial Health and Hospital System, a large urban safety net hospital in Dallas, between January 2005 and July 2012.

Diagnostic delays, defined as time to diagnosis exceeding 3 months, “are particularly common among outpatients, occurring in more than one-third,” the researchers found. “These delays may be related to several potential issues, including providers failing to recognize positive surveillance tests, patients missing radiology appointments, and insensitive diagnostic tests. Although we did not find any difference in receipt of [hepatocellular carcinoma]-directed treatment, diagnostic delays were associated with potential interval tumor growth in nearly one-fifth of patients.”

Racially Diverse Population

The median age of the patients was 56 years, and more than 75% were men. “Our population was racially diverse, with 36% African Americans, 30% Hispanic Caucasians, and 26% non-Hispanic Caucasians,” the researchers noted.

Among 457 patients with cirrhosis who were diagnosed with hepatocellular carcinoma, 231 were inpatients, and 226 (49.5%) were diagnosed as outpatients. Although the time from presentation to diagnosis was less than 1 week for more than 90% of inpatients, the median time to diagnosis was 2.2 months for outpatients, with 87 patients (38.5%) experiencing a diagnostic delay.

Less Delay With Electronic Medical Records

Higher rates of diagnostic delays were observed among those diagnosed as outpatients who had hepatic encephalopathy (56% vs 35%). “Among 49 patients with mass-forming [hepatocellular carcinoma] and diagnostic delay, 18% had interval tumor growth of 2 cm or greater,” the investigators stated.

Lower rates of diagnostic delays were observed in patients diagnosed as outpatients who presented after implementation of a comprehensive electronic medical record (EMR) system, 26% vs 60% for those presenting before EMR. The authors noted that “diagnostic delays may be more common in hospital systems without an EMR, because of higher rates of unrecognized positive surveillance tests.” Patients presenting with an abnormal ultrasound, with or without an elevated alpha-fetoprotein level, also had lower rates of diagnostic delay, 27% vs 50%.

May Contribute to Outcome Disparities

The investigators noted that the incidence of hepatocellular carcinoma is increasing because of a growing number of cases of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and hepatitis C virus. Curative options are “only available for those diagnosed at an early stage. Patients with early [hepatocellular carcinoma] achieve 5-year survival rates near 70% with resection or liver transplantation, whereas those with advanced [hepatocellular carcinoma] have a median survival of less than 1 year,” the authors added.

“Despite the availability of efficacious surveillance tests, only 40% of [hepatocellular carcinoma] cases are diagnosed at an early stage nationally,” the researchers wrote. “Tumor stage at diagnosis can be impacted by several factors in clinical practice, including low surveillance rates and delays in follow-up of abnormal screening tests. These issues may be particularly prevalent among racial minorities and socioeconomically disadvantaged patients, potentially contributing to racial and socioeconomic disparities in cancer outcomes.” 

Amit G. Singal, MD, MS, of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, is the corresponding author of the Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network article.

The study was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health/National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.


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