Beyond A1c: Implementing the new ESC 2023 guidelines


A significant mortality gap persists between patients with type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease and similarly aged patients with neither condition. Data from the Emerging Risk Factors Collaboration showed that on average, a 60-year-old female patient with type 2 diabetes and a history of myocardial infarction dies around 14 years earlier than a similarly aged patient with neither of these conditions.

Therefore, I was keen to hear the key new recommendations from the 2023 European Society of Cardiology (ESC) guidelines for the management of cardiovascular disease in patients with diabetes. These recommendations were presented at the recent ESC 2023 congress in Amsterdam, which I was fortunate enough to attend.

The comprehensive guideline cemented the fact that our primary goal in type 2 diabetes management is a reduction in cardiovascular events and mortality, rather than the glucocentric goals that have been followed previously. Of course, good glycemic control remains important to protect against the microvascular complications of diabetes, but glycemic control has only a modest impact on macrovascular complications such as cardiovascular disease.

The updated guideline recommends that all patients with type 2 diabetes without symptomatic atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease or severe target-organ damage be screened for the risk for cardiovascular disease using a new 10-year cardiovascular risk calculator called SCORE2-Diabetes. This calculator extends the well-established SCORE2 cardiovascular risk-prediction tool with added predictors specifically related to type 2 diabetes. It also accounts for variation in risk across Europe.

Using SCORE2 Diabetes will be a change in practice for me, as I have been using QRISK3, which is a United Kingdom–based cardiovascular risk tool that has been less extensively validated in patients with type 2 diabetes. Helpfully, an ESC CVD Risk Calculation app is available and can be tailored to your geographical region to calculate a SCORE2-Diabetes risk score easily. For example, Eastern Europe has a higher cardiovascular risk profile than Western Europe.

Cardiovascular risk categories are now defined on the basis of the presence of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, severe target-organ damage, or the 10-year cardiovascular risk using SCORE2-Diabetes.

For patients at very high cardiovascular risk (for example, those with type 2 diabetes and established atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease), the ESC guidance recommends dual therapy with a GLP-1 receptor agonist and an SGLT2 inhibitor to reduce cardiovascular risk independent of glucose control (that is, A1c). This dual therapy is recommended in addition to standard-of-care antiplatelet, antihypertensive, and lipid-lowering therapies.

There is no doubt that the evidence for GLP-1 receptor agonist use and reduction in atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease in type 2 diabetes is compelling, perhaps more so than the evidence for SGLT2 inhibitor use. However, this recommendation will be challenging to implement, given the current global supply issues with GLP-1 receptor agonists, which are driven by the off-label use of these medications for the management of obesity. GLP-1 receptor agonist supplies are not expected to stabilize until mid-2024.

Controversially, the updated ESC guidance suggests the use of metformin only in patients with type 2 diabetes and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease if additional glucose control is required. This is a misstep, in my opinion, as insulin resistance is one of the key pathophysiologic abnormalities in patients with type 2 diabetes. One of the key advantages of metformin is an improvement in insulin sensitivity. This recommendation will not change my practice, and I will continue to prescribe metformin alongside GLP-1 receptor agonists or SGLT2 inhibitors for my patients at highest cardiovascular risk.

The updated ESC guidance also explicitly reminds healthcare professionals to look for significant comorbidities, such as heart failure of all subtypes and chronic kidney disease.

The ESC guidance recommends a systematic survey for heart failure symptoms and signs at each clinical encounter in all patients with type 2 diabetes. Although I agree that heart failure is underdiagnosed in this population, the recommendation will be challenging to implement and has significant workload implications, as heart failure often presents in insidious, nonspecific ways in primary care.

For patients with type 2 diabetes and heart failure with reduced ejection fraction, SGLT2 inhibitors are recommended to reduce the risk for heart failure hospitalization and cardiovascular death. Again, this recommendation is independent of glycemic control. In addition, for patients with type 2 diabetes and heart failure with mid-range ejection fraction or heart failure with preserved ejection fraction (that is, left ventricular ejection fraction > 40%), SGLT2 inhibitors are also recommended to reduce the risk for heart failure hospitalization or cardiovascular death independent of glycemic control. This recommendation is consistent with other updated global heart failure guidance. Increasingly, the pillars of heart failure therapy are being challenged with the early initiation of SGLT2 inhibitors, given their compelling evidence base, early symptomatic benefit, and ease of use, with less requirement of routine blood monitoring.

Finally, for patients with type 2 diabetes and chronic kidney disease, SGLT2 inhibitors and finerenone are now recommended to reduce the risk for kidney failure and cardiovascular disease, independent of glycemic control and in addition to standard of care.

Finerenone is a nonsteroidal selective mineralocorticoid receptor antagonist with quite different pharmacokinetics and clinical effects, compared with those of spironolactone and eplerenone, which are steroidal MRAs. Specifically, finerenone does not significantly lower blood pressure and has fewer steroid-induced adverse effects such as gynecomastia, impotence, and low libido. However, like steroidal MRAs, finerenone can result in hyperkalemia.

Finerenone has demonstrated significant kidney and cardiovascular benefits across the spectrum of chronic kidney disease in patients with type 2 diabetes. It entails no significant imbalance in adverse events, hence this recommendation. This observation reinforces the importance of measuring urinary albumin–creatinine ratio in patients with type 2 diabetes and preserved kidney function.

In conclusion, the 2023 ESC guidelines for the management of cardiovascular disease in patients with diabetes are forward-thinking recommendations. They look beyond glycemia and reflect the current evidence for newer glucose-lowering therapies with proven cardiorenal benefits. Nevertheless, the implementation of these guidelines will be challenging, given their workload implications, the unstable supply of GLP-1 receptor agonists, and a persisting glucocentric approach to type 2 diabetes care in some areas. Implementation will require ongoing education for health care professionals about the risk-benefit ratios of SGLT2 inhibitors and GLP-1 receptor agonists. It also will require a re-evaluation of workforce strategy to support the development of a skilled and sustainable workforce.

Dr. Fernando is a general practitioner partner with North Berwick (Scotland) Health Centre, with a specialist interest in diabetes; cardiovascular, renal, and metabolic diseases; and medical education. He disclosed receiving speakers’ fees from Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk.

A version of this article appeared on

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