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Open Access Research article

Progression of liver cirrhosis to HCC: an application of hidden Markov model

Nicola Bartolomeo*, Paolo Trerotoli and Gabriella Serio

Author Affiliations

Department of Biomedical Science and Human Oncology, Chair of Medical Statistics, University of Bari, Bari, Italy

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BMC Medical Research Methodology 2011, 11:38  doi:10.1186/1471-2288-11-38

Published: 4 April 2011



Health service databases of administrative type can be a useful tool for the study of progression of a disease, but the data reported in such sources could be affected by misclassifications of some patients' real disease states at the time. Aim of this work was to estimate the transition probabilities through the different degenerative phases of liver cirrhosis using health service databases.


We employed a hidden Markov model to determine the transition probabilities between two states, and of misclassification. The covariates inserted in the model were sex, age, the presence of comorbidities correlated with alcohol abuse, the presence of diagnosis codes indicating hepatitis C virus infection, and the Charlson Index. The analysis was conducted in patients presumed to have suffered the onset of cirrhosis in 2000, observing the disease evolution and, if applicable, death up to the end of the year 2006.


The incidence of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) in cirrhotic patients was 1.5% per year. The probability of developing HCC is higher in males (OR = 2.217) and patients over 65 (OR = 1.547); over 65-year-olds have a greater probability of death both while still suffering from cirrhosis (OR = 2.379) and if they have developed HCC (OR = 1.410). A more severe casemix affects the transition from HCC to death (OR = 1.714). The probability of misclassifying subjects with HCC as exclusively affected by liver cirrhosis is 14.08%.


The hidden Markov model allowing for misclassification is well suited to analyses of health service databases, since it is able to capture bias due to the fact that the quality and accuracy of the available information are not always optimal. The probability of evolution of a cirrhotic subject to HCC depends on sex and age class, while hepatitis C virus infection and comorbidities correlated with alcohol abuse do not seem to have an influence.