Conference Coverage

One-third of patients with severe asthma are overusing corticosteroids

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REPORTING FROM ERS 2019

MADRID – The serious adverse events faced by asthma patients taking maintenance or rescue oral corticosteroids (OCS) might be avoidable if data from a Dutch study presented at the annual congress of the European Respiratory Society are representative of practice elsewhere.

Dr. Katrien A.B. Eger, Amsterdam University

Dr. Katrien A.B. Eger

“The main message from our study is that OCS overuse is common and unnecessary in the majority of asthma patients,” reported Katrien A.B. Eger, MD, Amsterdam University Medical Centre.

In this study, 5,002 patients on high doses of inhaled corticosteroids (ICS), defined as at least 500 mcg/day, were identified in a pharmacy database in the Netherlands. These patients were asked to complete a questionnaire to determine how many had severe asthma and had received rescue or maintenance OCS in the past year.

Drawing from the pharmacy database, it could be determined that 29% of the 2,312 patients who responded to the questionnaire were taking harmfully high doses of OCS as well as high doses of ICS. For this study, harmful exposure was defined as a cumulative intake of 420 mg of prednisone-equivalent OCS over a 1-year period. The median cumulative 1-year exposure, according to Dr. Eger, was 750 mg of prednisone equivalent.

In this population, the investigators then calculated ICS medication adherence based on prescription refills. In addition, a subset of this population was evaluated for inhaler technique.

On the basis of these calculations, 47.4% of patients with harmful OCS exposure were found not to be adherent to their prescribed ICS. Of those who were adherent, 53.9% were found not be taking their inhaled steroids appropriately,

When these numbers are put together, the data suggest “78.1% of high OCS users are either nonadherent or using poor inhalation techniques, which means there is a big potential for treatment optimization,” Dr. Eger said.

Yet even among the 21.9% who were adherent and using good inhaler technique, identifying a group who presumably require OCS for exacerbations, the study found that only 46.1% had been prescribed a biologic, which Dr. Eger considers an important steroid-sparing option. She conceded that many of those not on a biologic might not be candidates, but she believes this is another missed opportunity for reducing OCS exposure.

“In the Netherlands, we have very good access to health care, and biologics are available to anyone who needs them,” said Dr. Eger, explaining that access to these drugs is not a barrier.

The evidence overall is that not enough is being done to ensure that asthma patients are being protected from the risks of OCS, according to Dr. Eger. Citing evidence that adverse events associated with OCS begin with a cumulative lifetime prednisone-equivalent exposure of only 500 mg, she believes that clinicians should be more aggressive in intervening.

“We know that there are both acute and chronic complications associated with OCS that involve a range of organ systems,” Dr. Eger said. She listed osteoporosis, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and adrenal insufficiency as examples. Rescue OCS, even if used sparingly, can drive risk of OCS complications attributable to the importance of cumulative exposure.

In the session where these data were presented, the moderator, Guy Brusselle, MD, professor of asthma and immunology, Ghent (Belgium) University, labeled them “important.” However, he quibbled with Dr. Eger’s assertion that biologics represent a major opportunity to reduce OCS exposure.

“By suggesting that biologics are not being used often enough, there is an assumption that all of these patients have type 2 inflammatory asthma,” Dr. Brusselle said. “I think it makes more sense to emphasize steroid-sparing strategies, not just biologics.”

Dr. Eger did not disagree, but she emphasized that steroid-sparing alternatives are just one strategy to reduce OCS exposure, and ensuring that patients are adherent to prescribed ICS therapies and are using them correctly might have an even greater impact.

Dr. Eger reports no potential conflicts of interest.

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