Clinical Guidelines for Family Physicians

Pharmacologic Management of COPD

A Discussion of the new American Thoracic Society Clinical Practice Guideline


Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is caused by airway and alveolar abnormalities and is the third most common cause of death worldwide. COPD results in airflow obstruction that is not fully reversible. The diagnosis of COPD should be considered in patients over 40 years who have chronic cough and/or dyspnea, particularly if they have a history of tobacco use. The diagnosis is confirmed by a diminished forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1) that is not fully reversible with the use of a bronchodilator and an FEV1/forced vital capacity ratio of less than or equal to 0.7.1The American Thoracic Society released a guideline on the pharmacologic management of COPD after formulating specific questions to be answered using rigorous GRADE (Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation) methodology.2

Recommendation 1

Dr. Skolnik is professor of family and community medicine at Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, and associate director of the family medicine residency program at Abington (Pa.) Jefferson Health.

Dr. Neil Skolnik

Patients with COPD who report dyspnea or exercise intolerance should be treated with both a long-acting muscarinic antagonist (LAMA) and a long-acting beta agonist (LABA) (dual LAMA/LABA therapy) instead of monotherapy, the guideline says.

This recommendation represents a critical change in care and is based on strong evidence. For years practitioners have been using single bronchodilator therapy, often a LAMA as the entrance to treatment for patients with symptomatic COPD. The recommendation to begin treatment with dual bronchodilator therapy is an important one. This is the only recommendation that received a “strong” grade.

The evidence comes from the compilation of 24 randomized controlled trials that altogether included 45,441 patients. Dual therapy versus monotherapy was evaluated by examining differences in dyspnea, health-related quality of life, exacerbations (which were defined as requiring antibiotics, oral steroids, or hospitalizations), and hospitalizations independently. Marked improvements were observed for exacerbations and hospitalizations in the dual LAMA/LABA group, compared with treatment with use of a single bronchodilator. In 22,733 patients across 15 RCTs, there were 88 fewer exacerbations per 1,000 patients with a rate ratio (RR) of 0.80 (P < .002), the guideline states.

The decrease in exacerbations is a critical factor in treating patients with COPD because each exacerbation can lead to a sustained decrease in airflow and increases the risk of future exacerbations.

Recommendation 2

Jeffrey Matthews, DO

Dr. Jeffrey Matthews

In COPD patients who report dyspnea or exercise intolerance, with an exacerbation in the last year, the guideline recommends triple therapy with an inhaled corticosteroid (ICS) instead of just dual LAMA/LABA therapy.

In the past many clinicians have relegated triple therapy to a “last ditch resort.” This recommendation makes it clear that triple therapy is appropriate for a broad range of patients with moderate to severe COPD.

Recommendation 3

In patients with COPD who are on triple therapy, the inhaled corticosteroid component can be withdrawn if patients have not had an exacerbation within the last year, according to the guideline.

It should be noted that the committee said that the ICS can be withdrawn, not that it necessarily needs to be withdrawn. The data showed that it would be safe to withdraw the ICS, but the data is limited in time to 1 year’s follow-up.


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