Should patients with Barrett's oesophagus be kept under surveillance? The case for
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Oesophageal adenocarcinoma is associated with high mortality rates and its incidence is increasing more rapidly than any other gastrointestinal cancer in the Western world. Several factors, including gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, smoking, alcohol and male gender, are associated with oesophageal adenocarcinoma but none can be used to identify accurately those individuals who will develop adenocarcinoma. It is generally accepted that oesophageal adenocarcinoma arises predominantly in Barrett's oesophagus and it is arguable that Barrett's oesophagus is currently the only clinically useful predictor of oesophageal adenocarcinoma. Surveillance - periodic testing to detect adenocarcinoma or its precursor, high grade dysplasia - is widely recommended for patients with Barrett's oesophagus with the aim of reducing mortality from oesophageal adenocarcinoma. The annual incidence of oesophageal adenocarcinoma in patients with Barrett's oesophagus is 0.5%-1.0% although there is marked variation between studies, attributable variously to publication bias, concurrent acid suppression therapy and differences in patient characteristics. There is limited evidence that surveillance reduces the incidence of oesophageal adenocarcinoma or consequent mortality and the cause of death for patients undergoing surveillance is often unrelated to oesophageal disease. There are, nonetheless, observational studies which suggest that surveillance is associated with earlier detection of malignancy and a reduction in mortality; in addition, data from modelling studies suggest that surveillance can be cost-effective. Furthermore, the advent of new, non-surgical treatments (endoscopic mucosal resection, photodynamic therapy, argon plasma coagulation) for high grade dysplasia and early cancer has reduced the risks associated with therapy for disease detected during surveillance. Surveillance programs have high drop out rates and, for patients who continue surveillance, adherence to standard, published protocols is highly variable. The establishment of specialist Barrett's oesophagus surveillance programs, with coordinator support, has considerable potential to improve adherence to current guidelines, pending the acquisition and publication of data from ongoing studies of chemoprophylaxis and surveillance in the management of Barrett's oesophagus. In consequence, although there is a paucity of data providing unequivocal demonstration of benefit, there is no proof that surveillance is ineffective. It is, therefore, appropriate to offer surveillance for Barrett's oesophagus in accordance with locally-applicable published guidelines after a full informed discussion of the risks and benefits of surveillance and therapy; continued participation should be reviewed regularly to accommodate changes in the patient's health and expectations.
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