New liver scanner could help avert 'crisis in the making'

A Calgary outreach organization is trying to help Calgarians suffering from liver diseases using a painless diagnostic technology.

FibroScan is similiar to an ultrasound and replaces need for invasive biopsy

FibroScan is similar to an ultrasound and can help find and treat people with liver disease who are reluctant to undergo a liver biopsy. (Alana Baker/CBC)

A Calgary outreach organization is trying to help Calgarians suffering from liver diseases using a painless diagnostic technology.

FibroScan works much like an ultrasound and can provide an immediate diagnosis for many high-risk patients who wouldn't otherwise seek care.

"Often patients have heard about older tests we used to do like liver biopsies to stage liver disease severity and so by introducing them to this non-invasive test, we're hoping that we can help these patients access care and engage them in care for their underlying liver disease," said Dr. Rob Myers, a hepatologist at the University of Calgary.

Myers says many patients have heard nightmare stories about liver biopsies and so are less likely to get tested for liver damage, even though hepatitis, alcohol-related liver problems and fatty liver disease are a "crisis in the making."

However, catching problems early can help stop major problems before they develop.

Often, severe symptoms don't appear until the liver damage has progressed.

New technology not well known

CUPS held a free testing session Friday using FibroScan and is one of several Calgary medical centres to use it.

The technology was only approved in 2009 and many people aren't aware it exists.

For CUPS, the goal Friday was to test 75 people and for some, the news they received came as a surprise.

"Some of the patients I've told they have cirrhosis today," said Myers. "They had no clue that they may have advanced liver disease."

Traditional liver biopsies involve inserting a needle through the patient's side and into the liver to obtain a sample.

For many, the idea of undergoing that kind of testing is terrifying and delayed them seeking treatment.

"They wanted to but I wouldn't do it," said Jeff Giest, who is currently homeless and has Hepatitis C. "I was scared of the biopsies."

Now, Giest says the new scan helps him and will likely help a lot of other people reluctant to seek treatment for liver disease.

According to Myers, more than 90 per cent of people with liver disease can be cured with new treatments — if they get diagnosed.