Preventing arrhythmias and QTc prolongation in COVID-19 patients on psychotropics


Over the last few weeks, several conflicting reports about the efficacy of SARS-CoV-2 treatments have emerged, including high-profile papers that were placed in the limelight and groundbreaking retractions that were issued by the Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine, involving the potential dangers of COVID therapy with findings derived from the Surgisphere database. Hydroxychloroquine has garnered considerable media attention and was touted earlier by President Trump for its therapeutic effects.1 Naturally, there are political connotations associated with the agent, and it is unlikely that hydroxychloroquine will be supplanted in the near future as ongoing clinical trials have demonstrated mixed results amid the controversy.

Faisal A. Islam, MD

Dr. Faisal A. Islam

As clinicians navigating unchartered territory within the hospital setting, we have to come to terms with these new challenges, tailoring treatment protocols accordingly with the best clinical practices in mind. Patients with preexisting mental health conditions and who are being treated for COVID-19 are particularly susceptible to clinical deterioration. Recent studies have indicated that psychiatric patients are more prone to feelings of isolation and/or estrangement as well as exacerbation of symptoms such as paranoia.2 Even more concerning is the medication regimen, namely, the novel combination therapies that arise when agents such as hydroxychloroquine are used in tandem with certain antipsychotics or antidepressants. As clinicians, we must reassess the psychotropic medication regimen for people who are currently being treated for or recovering from COVID-19.

What’s at stake for COVID-19–positive mental health care patients?

Although the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine is currently being investigated,3 the antimalarial is usually prescribed in tandem with azithromycin for people with COVID-19. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has advised against that particular combination therapy because of ongoing concerns about toxicities.3,4

In another study, azithromycin was effectively substituted with doxycycline to help minimize systemic effects for patients with cardiac and/or pulmonary issues.5 Azithromycin is notorious in the literature for influencing the electrical activity of the heart with the potential for fatal arrhythmia and sudden cardiac death in individuals at risk for cardiovascular disease.5,6,7 It should be noted that both of these commonly prescribed COVID-19 medications (for example, hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin) could lead to QT interval prolongation especially within the context of combination therapy. This is largely concerning for psychiatrists and various other mental health practitioners for the following reasons: (1) higher rates of metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular diseases among psychiatric patients8 and/or (2) effects of certain antipsychotics (for example, IV haloperidol, thioridazine, and ziprasidone) and antidepressants (for example, citalopram and escitalopram) on the QT interval.9

SARS-CoV-2 and clinical judgment: Evaluating patients at higher risk

Dr. Mohammed S. Islam

Although COVID-19 medication guidelines are still being actively developed, hydroxychloroquine appears to be commonly prescribed by physicians. The medication is known myriad untoward effects, including potential behavioral dysfunction (for example, irritability, agitation, suicidal ideation)10 as well as the aforementioned issues concerning arrhythmia (for example, torsades de pointes). Health care professionals might not have much control over the choice of COVID-19 agents because of a lack of available resources or limited options, but they can exercise clinical judgment with respect to selecting the appropriate psychotropic medications.

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