For those unfamiliar with academic/medical journal publishing, it is slow. Very slow. I did a systematic review on EPI prevalence and submitted it to a journal on May 5, 2023. It underwent peer review and a round of revisions and was accepted on July 13, 2023. (That part is actually relatively quick.) However, it sat, and sat, and sat, and sat, and sat. I was impatient and wrote a blog post last year about the basic premise of the review, which is that despite commonly repeated statements about the prevalence of EPI being so high in co-conditions that those conditions therefore are the highest drivers of EPI… this unlikely to be true because it is mathematically improbable.
And then this paper still sat several more months until it was published online ahead of print…today! Wahoo! You can read “An Updated Review of Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency Prevalence finds EPI to be More Common in General Population than Rates of Co-Conditions” in the Journal of Gastrointestinal and Liver Diseases ahead of print (scheduled for the March 2024 issue).
It’s open access (and I didn’t have to pay for it to be!), so click here to go read it and download your own PDF copy of the article there. (As a reminder, I also save a version of every article including those that are not open access at DIYPS.org/research, in case you’re looking for this in the future or want to read some of my other research.) If you don’t want to read the full article, here’s a summary below and key takeaways for providers and patients (aka people like me with EPI!).
I read and systematically categorized 649 articles related to exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, which is known as EPI or PEI depending on where in the world you are. EPI occurs when the pancreas no longer produces enough enzymes to successfully digest food completely; when this occurs, pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT) is needed. This means swallowing enzyme pills every time you eat or drink something with fat or protein in it.
Like many of my other EPI-related research articles, this one found that EPI is underdiagnosed; undertreated; treatment costs are high; and prevalence is widely misunderstood, possibly leading to missing screening key populations.
- Underdiagnosis – for a clearer picture and specific disease-related example of how EPI is likely underdiagnosed in a co-condition, check out my other systematic review specifically assessing EPI in diabetes. I show in that paper how EPI is likely many times more likely than gastroparesis and celiac disease, yet it’s less likely to be screened for.
- Undertreated – another recent systematic review that I wrote after this paper (but was published sooner) is this systematic review on PERT dosing guidelines and dosing literature, showing how the overwhelming majority of people are not prescribed enough enzymes to meet their needs. Thus, symptoms persist and the literature continues to state that symptoms can’t be managed with PERT, which is not necessarily true: it just hasn’t been studied correctly with sufficient titration protocols.
- PERT costs are high – I highlight that although PERT costs continue to rise each year, there are studies in different co-condition populations showing PERT treatment is cost-effective and in some cases reduces the overall cost of healthcare. It’s hard to believe when we look at the individual out of pocket costs related to PERT sometimes, but the data more broadly shows that PERT treatment in many populations is cost-effective.
- Prevalence of EPI is misunderstood. This is the bulk of the paper and goes into a lot of detail showing how the general population estimates of EPI may be as high as 11-21%. In contrast, although prevalence of EPI is much higher within co-conditions, these conditions are such a small fraction of the general population that they therefore are also likely a small fraction of the EPI population.
As I wrote in the paper:
“The overall population prevalence of cystic fibrosis, pancreatitis, cancer, and pancreatic-related surgery combined totals <0.1%, and the lower end of the estimated overall population prevalence of EPI is approximately 10%, which suggests less than 1% of the overall incidence of EPI occurs in such rare co-conditions.
We can therefore conclude that 99% of EPI occurs in those without a rare co-condition.”
I also pointed out the mismatch of research prioritization and funding to date in EPI. 56-85% of the EPI-related research is focused on those representing less than ~1% of the overall population with EPI.
So what should you take away from this research?
If you are a healthcare provider:
Make sure you are screening people who present with gastrointestinal symptoms with a fecal elastase test to check for EPI. Weight loss and malnutrition does not always occur with EPI (which is a good thing, meaning it’s caught earlier) and similarly not everyone has diarrhea as their hallmark symptoms. Messy, smelly stools are often commonly described by people with EPI, among other symptoms such as excess gas and bloating,
Remember that conditions like diabetes have a high prevalence of EPI – it’s not just chronic pancreatitis or cystic fibrosis.
If you do have a patient that you are diagnosing or have diagnosed with EPI, make sure you are aware of the current dosing guidelines (see this systematic review) and 1) prescribe a reasonable minimal starting dose; 2) tell the patient when/how they can adjust their PERT on their own and when to call back for an updated prescription as they figure out what they need, and; 3) tell them they will likely need an updated prescription and you are ready to support them when they need to do so.
If you are a person living with EPI:
Most people with EPI are not taking enough enzymes to eliminate their symptoms. Dose timing matters (take it with/throughout meals), and the quantity of PERT matters.
- Here is a blog post with more resources about starting doses and some tips on talking with your doctor about your dosing.
- Here is another blog post with details about matching the dose to what you are eating in each meal.
If you’re still having symptoms, you may still need more enzymes.
Don’t compare what you are doing to what other people are taking: it’s not a moral failing to need a different amount of enzymes (or insulin, for that matter, or any other medication) than another person! It also likely varies by what we are eating, and we all eat differently.
If you’re still experiencing symptoms, you may need to experiment with a higher dose. If you still have symptoms or have new symptoms that start after taking PERT, you may need to try a different brand of PERT. Some people do well on one but not another, and there are different kinds you can try – ask your doctor.
How to cite this systematic review:
Lewis D. An Updated Review of Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency Prevalence finds EPI to be More Common in General Population than Rates of Co-Conditions. Journal of Gastrointestinal and Liver Diseases. 2024. DOI: 10.15403/jgld-5005
For other posts related to EPI, see DIYPS.org/EPI for more of my personal experiences with EPI and other plain-language research summaries.
For other research articles, see DIYPS.org/research