Background  Clinical features of hepatocellular carcinoma patients are changing because of screening.

Aim  To examine the clinical features of hepatocellular carcinoma patients in Hong Kong and validity of different staging systems.

Methods  A total of 223 Chinese patients with hepatocellular carcinoma were studied.

Results  Seventy-eight percent of hepatocellular carcinoma patients had chronic hepatitis B (43% diagnosed by screening). Hepatitis B positivity, weight loss, jaundice, encephalopathy, alpha-fetoprotein level, portal vein thrombosis, extrahepatic metastasis, and treatment were shown to be independent factors affecting survival. Of chronic hepatitis B patients, hepatitis B virus DNA levels (P = 0.001) and portal vein thrombosis (P = 0.008) were independent factors affecting survival. Seventy-six percent of chronic hepatitis B patients with hepatocellular carcinoma were hepatitis B e antigen negative. Screening patients had hepatocellular carcinoma detected at an earlier stage and better survival (median survival: 21 vs. 4 months, P < 0.0001). All staging systems had good stratification of survival. Prognosis and median survival generated were different when compared with the US data.

Conclusions  Chronic hepatitis B was the most common cause of hepatocellular carcinoma in Hong Kong. High-risk chronic hepatitis B patients should be followed irrespective of the hepatitis B e antigen status. Hepatitis B virus DNA levels at the time of diagnosis are an important survival predictor. Screening detected hepatocellular carcinoma at an earlier stage and prolonged survival. Staging systems should be validated in different populations.