Unfortunate or Unfair Disparities in Liver Transplantation

In medical school, I took additional courses in bioethics and one of the influential lecturers was Tristramm Engelhardt (Right to Health Care).  “According to him, injuries, disabilities, and diseases arising from natural causes are considered unfortunate. On the other hand, those situations become unfair when brought about by the doing of others. Engelhardt also notes that the result of someone’s unfair action should not be attributed to the society as a whole.”

Two recent articles detail the link between socioeconomics and outcomes in liver transplantation. Are these problems unfair or just unfortunate?

NH Ebel et al. Liver Transplantation 2022; 28: 1521-1529. A review of racial, socioeconomic, and geographic disparities in pediatric liver transplantation

Key points:

  • Disparities remain in pediatric liver transplantation at all time points: from access to referral for transplantation, likelihood of living donor transplantation, use of exception narratives, waitlist mortality, and inequitable posttransplant outcomes
  • Black children are less likely to be petitioned for exception scores, have higher waitlist mortality, are less likely to be the recipient of a living donor transplant, and have worse posttransplant outcomes compared with White children.
  • Children living in the most socioeconomically deprived neighborhoods have worse posttransplant outcomes.
  • Children living farther from a transplant center have higher waitlist mortality

KA Mohamed et al. Liver Transplantation 2022; 28: 1441-1453. Open access! Neighborhood poverty is associated with failure to be waitlisted and death during liver transplantation evaluation

Key points:

  • Based on retrospective analysis of 3454 patients (2011-2018), neighborhood poverty was independently associated with waitlisting (odds ratio 0.56, 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.38–0.82) and death during LT evaluation (hazard ratio 1.49, 95% CI 1.09–2.09)
  • Despite use of the objective prioritization with MELD scores in the allocation of organs, disparities in access for LT continues for vulnerable populations

My take: It is unfortunate but not surprising that poverty and socioeconomic factors adversely affect liver transplantation; the outcomes show stark differences. These issues, however, affect every aspect of health care (& beyond). Though they are not easily addressed, efforts to try to level the playing field are important especially with regard to transplantation to assure optimal use of this life-saving resource.

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Portage Pass Trail (near Whittier AK) with views of Portage glacier