Benzodiazepines (BZDs) are among the most commonly prescribed medications. A recent study found that in 2008, more than 5% of Americans used a BZD, and the percentage was almost 9% among Americans aged ≥ 65 years.1,2 Among veterans, BZD use is even higher, in part because of the high prevalence of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One study found that more than 30% of veterans with PTSD received at least 1 BZD prescription.3 The risks associated with BZD treatment for PTSD are compounded by concurrent use of other sedatives and opioids prescribed for co-occurring chronic pain and insomnia.3
Older adults metabolize long-acting BZDs more slowly and generally have an increased sensitivity to the adverse effects (AEs) of all BZDs.4 In older adults, BZD use has been associated with cognitive decline, dementia, falls and consequent fractures, and adverse respiratory outcomes.5-12 The risk of most but not all of these AEs was increased with higher BZD dose or long-term BZD use, which this quality improvement project (QIP) defines as having at least a 60-day supply of BZD prescriptions dispensed within the past year.
Long-term BZD use increases with age. One study found that, among patients receiving a BZD, the rate of long-term BZD use was more than double in older adults (31.4%) than it was in adults aged between 18 and 35 years (14.7%).2 For these reasons, the 2012 Beers criteria of the American Geriatrics Society recommend avoiding all types of BZDs in the treatment of insomnia, agitation, or delirium in patients aged > 65 years.13 Despite this recommendation, the prevalence of BZD use in older adults remains high.14
Some innovative approaches have been developed to address the inappropriate use, including overuse and misuse, of BZDs in older adults.15 In one approach, direct-to-consumer (DTC) information is used to empower patients to collaborate with their physician to manage their health. Results from several studies suggest that providing older patients with information on BZD risks and benefits increases patient–physician interaction and thereby decreases inappropriate BZD use and improves health outcomes.4,16,17 One study found that perceptions of BZD risks increased 1 week after exposure to a DTC educational brochure (EB), with intention to discuss BZD discontinuation with their physician higher for patients who received the EB than it was for those who did not (83.1% vs 44.3%; P < .0001).16 The EMPOWER (Eliminating Medications Through Patient Ownership of End Results) cluster randomized controlled trial assessed the effectiveness of a DTC EB focused on BZD risks in older adults.17 In that seminal study, patients who received a DTC EB were more likely than were comparison patients to discontinue BZD within 6 months (27% vs 5%; risk difference, 23%; 95% CI, 14%-32%).
The Veterans Integrated Systems Network (VISN) 22 Academic Detailing Program is a pharmacy educational outreach program that uses unbiased clinical guidelines to promote physicians’ safety initiatives and align prescribing behavior with best practices.18-20 With BZD use among older veterans remaining high, the VISN 22 program initiated a clinical QIP modeled on the EMPOWER trial. Veterans in VISN 22 received the DTC EB, which included information on BZD risks and encouraged them to discuss their BZD treatment with their health care provider. VISN 22 was the first VISN in the VHA to implement the EMPOWER protocol.
As this was a QIP, all eligible veterans in VISN 22 were mailed the DTC EB, thus making it difficult to estimate the impact of the EB on BZD discontinuation in this VISN. Therefore, DTC EB efficacy was estimated by comparing BZD discontinuation between VISN 22 and VISN 21, an adjacent VISN that did not mail the DTC EB. To reduce selection bias associated with different controls in the 2 VISNs, the authors performed propensity score matching (PSM) to balance the covariates and provide an unbiased estimate of the mean treatment effect of the DTC EB in VISN 22 veterans who were included in the initial descriptive QIP and received the EB; these veterans were compared with VISN 21 veterans who did not receive the EB.