Private Practice Perspectives

The importance of education and screening for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease


For the past 18 months, we’ve all been focused on defeating the COVID-19 pandemic and preparing for the effects of cancer screenings that were delayed or put off entirely. But COVID isn’t the only epidemic we’re facing in the United States. Obesity is the second leading cause of preventable death in the United States. and its related diseases account for $480.7 billion in direct health care costs, with an additional $1.24 trillion in indirect costs from lost economic productivity.

Dr. Sanjay Sandhir is a practicing gastroenterologist at Dayton Gastroenterology, One GI in Ohio and is an executive committee member of the Digestive Health Physicians Association.

Dr. Sanjay Sandhir

More than two in five Americans are obese and that number is predicted to grow to more than half of the U.S. population by 2030. Obesity is a risk factor for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), a buildup of fat in the liver with little or no inflammation or cell damage that affects one in three (30%-37%) of adults in the U.S.

NAFLD can progress to nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), which affects about 1 in 10 (8%-12%) of adults in the U.S. NASH is fat in the liver with inflammation and cell damage, and it can lead to fibrosis and liver failure. The number of patients we see with NALFD and NASH continues to rise and it’s taking its toll. One in five people who have NASH will have the disease progress to liver cirrhosis. NASH is expected to be the leading cause of liver transplant in the U.S. for the next 5 years.

Stemming the tide of NAFLD and NASH

The best way to fight NAFLD and NASH is to prevent it in the first place by maintaining a healthy weight and exercising most days of the week. In terms of diet, limiting sugar and eating a diet rich in vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats can prevent the factors that lead to liver disease.

If this were easy, we wouldn’t be facing the obesity epidemic that is plaguing the United States. One of the issues is that medicine has only recognized obesity as a disease for less than 10 years. We aren’t trained in medical school, residencies, or fellowships in managing obesity, beyond advising people to exercise and eat right. We know this doesn’t work.

That’s why many independent GI groups are exploring comprehensive weight management programs that take a holistic approach to weight management involving a team of health care providers and educators helping patients gradually exercise more and eat healthy while providing a social support system to lose weight and keep it off.

The best way to educate is to listen first

As gastroenterologists, we see many obesity-related issues and have an opportunity to intervene before other more serious issues show up – like cancer, hypertension, and stroke. And educating the public and primary care physicians is key to ensuring that patients who are high risk are screened for liver disease.

Some GI practices leverage awareness events such as International NASH Day in June, or National Liver Cancer Awareness Month in October, to provide primary care physicians and patients with educational materials about making healthier choices and what options are available to screen for NAFLD and NASH.

While the awareness events offer a ready-made context for outreach, the physicians in my practice work year-round to provide information on liver disease. When patients are brought in for issues that may indicate future problems, we look for signs of chronic liver disease and educate them and their family members about liver disease and cirrhosis.

Discussions of weight are very personal, and it’s important to approach the conversation with sensitivity. It’s also good to understand as best as possible any cultural implications of discussing a person’s weight to ensure that the patient or their family members are not embarrassed by the discussion. I find that oftentimes the best approach is to listen to the patient and hear what factors are influencing their ability to exercise and eat healthy foods so that you can work together to find the best solution.

It’s also important to recognize that racial disparities exist in many aspects of NAFLD, including prevalence, severity, genetic predisposition, and overall chance of recovery. For instance, Hispanics and Asian Americans have a higher prevalence of NAFLD, compared with other ethnic and racial groups.


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