Background: Liver function tests (LFTs) are ordered in large numbers in primary care, and the Birmingham and Lambeth Liver Evaluation Testing Strategies (BALLETS) study was set up to assess their usefulness in patients with no pre-existing or self-evident liver disease. All patients were tested for chronic viral hepatitis thereby providing an opportunity to compare various strategies for detection of this serious treatable disease.
Methods: This study uses data from the BALLETS cohort to compare various testing strategies for viral hepatitis in patients who had received an abnormal LFT result. The aim was to inform a strategy for identification of patients with chronic viral hepatitis. We used a cost-minimisation analysis to define a base case and then calculated the incremental cost per case detected to inform a strategy that could guide testing for chronic viral hepatitis.
Results: Of the 1,236 study patients with an abnormal LFT, 13 had chronic viral hepatitis (nine hepatitis B and four hepatitis C). The strategy advocated by the current guidelines (repeating the LFT with a view to testing for specific disease if it remained abnormal) was less efficient (more expensive per case detected) than a simple policy of testing all patients for viral hepatitis without repeating LFTs. A more selective strategy of viral testing all patients for viral hepatitis if they were born in countries where viral hepatitis was prevalent provided high efficiency with little loss of sensitivity. A notably high alanine aminotransferase (ALT) level (greater than twice the upper limit of normal) on the initial ALT test had high predictive value, but was insensitive, missing half the cases of viral infection.
Conclusions: Based on this analysis and on widely accepted clinical principles, a "fast and frugal" heuristic was produced to guide general practitioners with respect to diagnosing cases of viral hepatitis in asymptomatic patients with abnormal LFTs. It recommends testing all patients where a clear clinical indication of infection is present (e.g. evidence of intravenous drug use), followed by testing all patients who originated from countries where viral hepatitis is prevalent, and finally testing those who have a notably raised ALT level (more than twice the upper limit of normal). Patients not picked up by this efficient algorithm had a risk of chronic viral hepatitis that is lower than the general population.