A “virtual” liver transplant center servicing Vermont and New Hampshire has improved access to liver transplant listing among patients in rural areas of the region, according to a new analysis.
The virtual center was established in 2016 at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, and it allows patients to receive pre–liver transplant evaluations, testing, and care and posttransplant follow-up there rather than at the liver transplant center that conducts the surgery. The center includes two hepatologists, two associate care providers, and a nurse liver transplant coordinator at DHMC, and led to increased transplant listing in the vicinity, according to Margaret Liu, MD, who presented the study at the virtual annual meeting of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases.
“The initiation of this Virtual Liver Transplant Center has been able to provide patients with the ability to get a full liver transplant workup and evaluation at a center near their home rather than the often time-consuming and costly process of potentially multiple trips to a liver transplant center up to 250 miles away for a full transplant evaluation,” said Dr. Liu in an interview. Dr. Liu is an internal medicine resident at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center.
“Our results did show that the initiation of a virtual liver transplant center correlated with an increased and sustained liver transplant listing rate within 60 miles of Dartmouth over that particular study period. Conversely there was no significant change in the listing rate of New Hampshire zip codes that were within 60 miles of the nearest transplant center during the same study period,” said Dr. Liu.
The center receives referrals of patients who are potential candidates for liver transplant listing from practices throughout New Hampshire and Vermont, or from their own center. Their specialists conduct full testing, including a full liver transplant workup that includes evaluation of the patient’s general health and social factors, prior to sending the patient to the actual liver transplant center for their evaluation and transplant surgery. “We essentially do all of the pre–liver transplant workup, a formal liver transplant evaluation, and then the whole packet gets sent to an actual liver transplant center to expedite the process of getting listed for liver transplant. We’re able to streamline the process, so they get everything done here at a hospital near their home. If that requires multiple trips, it’s a lot more doable for the patients,” said Dr. Liu.
The researchers defined urban areas as having more than 50,000 people per square mile and within 30 miles of the nearest hospital, and rural as fewer than 10,000 and more than 60 miles from the nearest hospital. They used the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients to determine the number of liver transplant listings per zip code.
Between 2015 and 2019, the frequency of liver transplant listings per 10,000 people remained nearly unchanged in the metropolitan area of southern New Hampshire, ranging from around 0.36 to 0.75. In the rural area within 60 miles of DHMC, the frequency increased from about 0.7 per 10,000 in 2015 to about 1.4 in 2016 and 0.9 in 2017. There was an increase to nearly 3 in 10,000 in 2018, and the frequency was just over 2 in 2019.
The model has the potential to be used in other areas, according to Dr. Liu. “This could potentially be implemented in other rural areas that do not have a transplant center or don’t have a formal liver transplant evaluation process,” said Dr. Liu.
While other centers may have taken on some aspects of liver transplant evaluation and posttransplant care, the Virtual Liver Transplant Center is unique in that a great deal of effort has gone into covering all of a patient’s needs for the liver transplant evaluation. “It’s really the formalization that, from what I have researched, has not been done before,” said Dr. Liu.
The model addresses transplant-listing disparity, as well as improves patient quality of life through reduction in travel, according to Mayur Brahmania, MD, of Western University, London, Ont., who moderated the session. “They’ve proven that they can get more of their patients listed over the study period, which I think is amazing. The next step, I think, would be about whether getting them onto the transplant list actually made a difference in terms of outcome – looking at their wait list mortality, looking at how many of these patients actually got a liver transplantation. That’s the ultimate outcome,” said Dr. Brahmania.
He also noted the challenge of setting up a virtual center. “You have to have allied health staff – addiction counselors, physical therapists, dietitians, social workers. You need to have the appropriate ancillary services like cardiac testing, pulmonary function testing. It’s quite an endeavor, and if the program isn’t too enthusiastic or doesn’t have a local champion, it’s really hard to get something like this started off. So kudos to them for taking on this challenge and getting this up and running over the last 5 years,” said Dr. Brahmania.
Dr. Liu and Dr. Brahmania have no relevant financial disclosures.