Doctors have been grossly underestimating liver damage in patients with hepatitis C, according to a new study in the American Journal of Gastroenterology.
The study, which involved 9,783 patients, showed that 2,788, or 29 percent, had signs of cirrhosis, but only 1,727 had the condition properly documented in their medical records.
Study author Stuart Gordon, Director of Hepatology at Henry Ford Healthy System, says doctors have long suspected that liver damage might go unreported, but there had been little data previously.
The study is the first confirmation that hepatitis C patients may need more screening and follow-up care for cirrhosis. If not treated early, cirrhosis can lead to liver failure. Patients with cirrhosis also need lifelong screening for cancer.
"Once they’ve developed cirrhosis, while it’s not an inevitable time bomb, it’s certainly a potential time bomb. Once cirrhosis has developed, we follow these patients much more closely," says Gordon.
The researchers used a combination of methods to evaluate liver damage in the study participants, including liver biopsy and the FIB-4 diagnostic test.
Between 2.7 and 3.9 million people in the U.S. have chronic hepatitis C.