Interpreting the significance of drinking by alcohol-dependent liver transplant patients: Fostering candor is the key to recovery

Authors

  • Robert M. Weinrieb,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Psychiatry at the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center and The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia, PA
    • Address reprint requests to Robert M. Weinrieb, MD, Treatment Research Center of The University of Pennsylvania, 3900 Chestnut St, Philadelphia, PA 19104. Telephone: 215-222-1739; FAX: 215-222-1792
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  • Deborah H.A. Van Horn,

    1. Department of Psychiatry at the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center and The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia, PA
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  • A. Thomas McLellan,

    1. Department of Psychiatry at the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center and The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia, PA
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  • Michael R. Lucey

    1. Department of Medicine, The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia, PA
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Abstract

Few studies have examined the value of treating alcohol addiction either before or after liver transplantation. Nevertheless, most liver transplant programs and many insurance companies require 6 months to 1 year of abstinence from alcohol as a condition of eligibility for liver transplantation (the 6-month rule). We believe there are potentially harsh clinical consequences to the implementation of this rule. For example, the natural history of alcohol use disorders often involves brief fallbacks to drinking (“slips”), but when alcoholic liver transplant candidates slip, most are removed from consideration for transplantation or are required to accrue another 6 months of sobriety. Because there is no alternative treatment to liver transplantation for most patients with end-stage liver disease, the 6-month rule could be lethal in some circumstances. In this review, we survey the literature concerning the ability of the 6-month rule to predict drinking by alcoholic patients who undergo liver transplantation and examine its impact on the health consequences of drinking before and after liver transplantation. We believe that fostering candor between the alcoholic patient and the transplant team is the key to recovery from alcoholism. We conclude that it is unethical to force alcoholic liver patients who have resumed alcohol use while waiting for or after transplantation to choose between hiding their drinking to remain suitable candidates for transplantation or risk death by asking for treatment of alcoholism. Consequently, we advocate a flexible approach to clinical decision making for the transplant professional caring for an alcoholic patient who has resumed drinking and provide specific guidelines for patient management.

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