What is Hepatology?

Hepatology is the branch of medicine that incorporates study of liver, gallbladder, biliary tree and pancreas as well as management of their disorders. Etymologically the word ''Hepatology'' is formed of ancient Greek ''hepar''(ηπαρ) or ''hepato-''(ηπατο-) meaning ' liver' and suffix ''-logia''(-λογια) meaning 'word' or 'speech'. Although traditionally considered a sub-specialty of gastroenterology, rapid expansion has led in some countries to doctors specialising solely on this area, who are called hepatologists.

Diseases and complications related to viral hepatitis and alcohol are the main reason for seeking specialist advice. One third of world population has been infected with Hepatitis B virus at some point in their life. Although most of them would clear the virus from the body, approximately 350 million have become persistent carriers. Up to 80% of liver cancers can be attributed to either hepatitis B or Hepatitis C virus.

In terms of number of mortality, the former is second only to smoking among known agents causing cancer. With more widespread implementation of vaccination and strict screening before blood transfusion, lower infection rates are expected in the future. In many countries, though, overall alcohol intake is on the rise, and consequently the number of people with cirrhosis and other related complications is increasing.

As for many medical specialties, patients are most likely to be referred by family physicians ( i.e. GP) or by doctors from different disciplines. The reasons might be:

  • Drug overdose. Paracetamol overdose is common.
  • Gastrointestinal bleeding from portal hypertension related to liver damage
  • Abnormal blood test suggesting liver disease
  • Enzyme defects leading to bigger liver in children commonly named storage disease of liver
  • Jaundice / Hepatitis virus positivity in blood, perhaps discovered on screening blood tests
  • Ascites or swelling of abdomen from fluid accumulation, commonly due to liver disease but can be from other diseases like heart failure
  • All patients with advanced liver disease e.g. cirrhosis should be under specialist care
  • To undergo ERCP for diagnosing diseases of biliary tree or their management
  • Fever with other features suggestive of infection involving mentioned organs. Some exotic tropical diseases like hydatid cyst, kala-azar or schistosomiasis may be suspected. Microbiologists would be involved as well
  • Systemic diseases affecting liver and biliary tree e.g. haemochromatosis
  • Follow up of liver transplant
  • Pancreatitis - commonly due to alcohol or gall stone
  • Cancer of above organs. Usually multi-disciplinary approach is under taken with involvement of oncologist and other experts.

Further Reading


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