Lessons from look-back in acute liver failure? A single centre experience of 3300 patients

J Hepatol. 2013 Jul;59(1):74-80. doi: 10.1016/j.jhep.2013.02.010. Epub 2013 Feb 22.


Background & aims: Acute liver failure (ALF) is a rapidly progressive critical illness with high mortality. Complex intensive care unit (ICU) protocols and emergency liver transplantation (ELT) are now often available, but rarity and severity of illness have limited its study and evidence-base for care. We reviewed patients treated over a 35-year period at a specialist high-volume ICU, quantifying changes in disease aetiology, severity and evolution of ICU support and ELT use and outcome.

Methods: Review of adult patients admitted during the period 1973-2008, with acute liver dysfunction and coagulopathy with overt hepatic encephalopathy (ALF) and those without (acute liver injury; ALI).

Results: 3305 patients fulfilled inclusion criteria, 2095 with ALF. Overall hospital survival increased from 30% in 1973-78 to 76% in 2004-08; in ALF from 17% to 62% (both p<0.0001). In ALF patients treated without ELT, survival rose from 17% to 48% (p<0.0001); in those undergoing ELT (n=387) from 56% in 1984-88 to 86% in 2004-08 (p<0.01). Coincident with drug sales-restriction, paracetamol-related admissions fell significantly. Viral admissions fell from 56% to 17% of non-paracetamol cases (p<0.0001). Admission markers of liver injury severity fell significantly and the proportion of patients with intracranial hypertension (ICH) fell from 76% in 1984-88 to 20% in 2004-08 (p<0.0001). In those with ICH, mortality fell from 95% to 55% (p<0.0001).

Conclusions: The nature and outcome of ALF have transformed over 35 years, with major improvements in survival and a fall in prevalence of cerebral oedema and ICH, likely consequent upon earlier illness recognition, improved ICU care, and use of ELT.

MeSH terms

  • Acetaminophen / adverse effects
  • Adult
  • Analgesics, Non-Narcotic / adverse effects
  • Critical Care
  • Emergencies
  • Female
  • Hepatic Encephalopathy / etiology
  • Hepatic Encephalopathy / mortality
  • Hepatic Encephalopathy / surgery
  • Humans
  • Intracranial Hypertension / etiology
  • Intracranial Hypertension / mortality
  • Intracranial Hypertension / surgery
  • Liver Failure, Acute / etiology*
  • Liver Failure, Acute / mortality
  • Liver Failure, Acute / surgery*
  • Liver Transplantation*
  • London / epidemiology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Risk Factors
  • Young Adult


  • Analgesics, Non-Narcotic
  • Acetaminophen