Background: To receive a liver transplant, patients must first be placed on a waiting list—a decision made at most transplant centers by a multidisciplinary committee. The function of these committees has never been studied.
Objective: To describe decision making in liver transplant committees and identify opportunities for process improvement.
Design: Observational multicenter study.
Setting: 4 liver transplant centers in the United States.
Participants: 68 members of liver transplant committees across the 4 centers.
Measurements: 63 meetings were observed, and 50 committee members were interviewed. Recorded transcripts and field notes were analyzed by using standard qualitative sociologic methods.
Results: Although the structure of the meetings varied by center, the process was uniform and primarily involved inductive reasoning to review possible reasons for patient exclusion. Patients were excluded if they were too well, too sick (in the setting of advanced liver disease), or too old or had nonhepatic comorbid conditions, substance abuse problems, or other psychosocial barriers. Dominant themes in the discussions included member angst over deciding who lived or died, a high correlation between psychosocial barriers to transplantation and the patient's socioeconomic status, and the influence of external forces on decision making. Unwritten center policies and confusion regarding advocacy versus stewardship roles were consistently identified as barriers to effective group decision making.
Limitations: The use of qualitative methods provides broad understanding but limits specific inferences. The 4 centers may not reflect the practices of every transplant center nationwide.
Conclusion: The difficult decisions made by liver transplant committees are reasonably consistent and well-intentioned, but the process might be improved by having more explicit written policies and clarifying roles. This may inform resource allocation in other areas of medicine.
Primary Funding Source: The Greenwall Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.