Only 25% of Veterans Affairs (VA) patients with potentially curable (Barcelona Clinic Liver Cancer stage 0/A) hepatocellular carcinoma received resection, transplantation, or ablative therapy, according to the results of a national retrospective cohort study published in the June issue of Gastroenterology (doi: 10.1053/j.gastro.2017.02.040).

Furthermore, 13% of the fittest (ECOG performance status 1-2) patients received no active treatment for their hepatocellular carcinoma, Marina Serper, MD , of Corporal Michael J. Crescenz VA Medical Center, Philadelphia, and Tamar H. Taddei, MD, of VA New York Harbor Health Care System, Brooklyn, New York, wrote with their associates in Gastroenterology.

“Delivery of curative therapies conferred the highest survival benefit, and notable geographic and specialist variation was observed in the delivery of active treatment,” they added. “Future studies should further evaluate modifiable health system and provider-specific barriers to delivering high quality, multidisciplinary care in hepatocellular carcinoma [in order] to optimize patient outcomes.”

Hepatocellular carcinoma ranks second worldwide and fifth in the United States as a cause of cancer mortality. Gastroenterologists, hepatologists, medical oncologists, or surgeons may take primary responsibility for treatment in community settings, but little is known about how provider and health system factors affect outcomes or the likelihood of receiving active treatments, such as liver transplantation, resection, ablative or transarterial therapy, sorafenib, systemic chemotherapy, or radiation. Accordingly, the researchers reviewed medical records and demographic data from all 3,988 U.S. patients diagnosed with hepatocellular carcinoma between 2008 and 2010 who received care at 128 Veterans Affairs centers. Patients were followed through the end of 2014. Data were from the Veterans Outcomes and Costs Associated with Liver Disease (VOCAL) cohort study (Gastroenterology. 2017 Mar 7. doi: 10.1053/j.gastro.2017.02.040 ).

After diagnosis, most (54%) patients only underwent transarterial palliative therapy, and 24% received no cancer treatment, the researchers reported. Being treated at an academically affiliated VA hospital nearly doubled the odds of receiving active therapy (odds ratio, 1.97; 95% confidence interval, 1.6 to 2.4; P less than .001), even after the researchers controlled for race, Charlson-Deyo comorbidity, and presenting Barcelona Clinic Liver Cancer stage. Evaluation by multiple specialists also significantly increased the odds of active treatment (OR, 1.60; 95% CI, 1.15 to 2.21; P = .005), but review by a multidisciplinary tumor board did not (OR, 1.19; P = .1).

Receipt of active therapy also varied significantly by region. Compared with patients in the Northeastern United States, those in the mid-South were significantly less likely to receive active therapy (HR, 0.62; 95% CI, 0.44-0.85). Patients in the Southeast, Central, and Western United States also were less likely to receive active treatment than were those in the Northeast, but 95% CIs for these hazard ratios were nonsignificant. Virtual tumor boards could help overcome diagnostic and treatment delays, but costs, care coordination, patient factors, and compensation issues are major barriers against implementation, the investigators noted.

Overall survival was associated with active treatment of hepatocellular carcinoma, including liver transplantation (hazard ratio, 0.22; 95% CI, 0.16-0.31), liver resection (HR, 0.38; 95% CI, 0.28-0.52), ablative therapy (HR, 0.63; 95% CI, 0.52-0.76), and transarterial therapy (HR, 0.83; 95% CI, 0.74-0.92). Reduced mortality was associated with seeing a hepatologist (HR, 0.7), medical oncologist (HR, 0.82), or surgeon (HR, 0.79) within 30 days of diagnosis (P less than .001 for each). Undergoing review by a multidisciplinary tumor board was associated with significantly reduced mortality (HR, 0.83; P less than .001), said the researchers.

“Findings from the VOCAL cohort of predominantly older males with significant medical comorbidities are important in light of the aging U.S. population and a nearly 70% expected increase in cancer among older adults,” they wrote. Together, the results indicate that access to multidisciplinary and expert care “is critical for optimizing treatment choices and for maximizing survival, but that such access is non-uniform,” they noted. “Detailed national VA clinical and administrative data are a unique resource that may be tapped to facilitate development of a parsimonious set of evidence-based, patient-centered, liver cancer–specific quality measures,” they emphasized. Quality measures based on timeliness, receipt of appropriate care, survival, or patient-reported outcomes “could be applicable both within and outside the VA system.”

The study was funded by unrestricted grants from Bayer Healthcare Pharmaceuticals and the VA HIV, Hepatitis and Public Health Pathogens Programs. The investigators had no conflicts.


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