Original Research

Evaluating a Veterans Affairs Home-Based Primary Care Population for Patients at High Risk of Osteoporosis

A retrospective chart review of patients in a home-based primary care program suggests that patients who are at high risk for osteoporosis may not be receiving adequate dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry screening.

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Osteoporosis is a disease characterized by the loss of bone density.1 Bone is normally porous and is in a state of flux due to changes in regeneration caused by osteoclast or osteoblast activity. However, age and other factors can accelerate loss in bone density and lead to decreased bone strength and an increased risk of fracture. In men, bone mineral density (BMD) can begin to decline as early as age 30 to 40 years. By age 80 years, 25% of total bone mass may be lost.2

Of the 44 million Americans with low BMD or osteoporosis, 20% are men.1 This group accounts for up to 40% of all osteoporotic fractures. About 1 in 4 men aged ≥ 50 years may experience a lifetime fracture. Fractures may lead to chronic pain, disability, increased dependence, and potentially death. These complications cause expenditures upward of $4.1 billion annually in North America alone.3,4 About 80,000 US men will experience a hip fracture each year, one-third of whom will die within that year. This constitutes a mortality rate 2 to 3 times higher than that of women. Osteoporosis often goes undiagnosed and untreated due to a lack of symptoms until a fracture occurs, underlining the potential benefit of preemptive screening.

In 2007, Shekell and colleagues outlined how the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) screened men for osteoporosis.5 At the time, 95% of the VA population was male, though it has since dropped to 91%.6 Shekell and colleagues estimated that about 200,0000 to 400,0000 male veterans had osteoporosis.5 Osteoporotic risk factors deemed specific to veterans were excessive alcohol use, spinal cord injury and lack of weight-bearing exercise, prolonged corticosteroid use, and androgen deprivation therapy in prostate cancer. Different screening techniques were assessed, and the VA recommended the Osteoporosis Self-Assessment Tool (OST).5 Many organizations have developed clinical guidance, including who should be screened; however, screening for men remains a controversial area due to a lack of any strong recommendations (Table 1).

Endocrine Society screening guidelines for men are the most specific: testing BMD in men aged ≥ 70 years, or if aged 50 to 69 years with an additional risk factor (eg, low body weight, smoking, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic steroid use).1 The Fracture Risk Assessment tool (FRAX) score is often cited as a common screening tool. It is a free online questionnaire that provides a 10-year probability risk of hip or major osteoporotic fracture.11 However, this tool is limited by age, weight, and the assumption that all questions are answered accurately. Some of the information required includes the presence of a number of risk factors, such as alcohol use, glucocorticoids, and medical history of rheumatoid arthritis, among others (Table 2). The OST score, on the other hand, is a calculation that does not take into account other risk factors (Figure 1). This tool categorizes the patient into low, moderate, or high risk for osteoporosis.8

In a study of 4,000 men aged ≥ 70 years, Diem and colleagues found that OST performed better than FRAX in identifying men who were osteoporotic as well as reducing the proportion of men referred for dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) scan vs universal screening.12 The mean study participant was aged 76 years, overweight, and had a history of smoking; the majority were white. An OST score of < 2 captured 64% of the total population, 82% of whom had a T-score of < 2.5, which is a diagnostic for osteoporosis. A FRAX score of 9.3% captured 42% of the total population, but only 59% of patients with a T-score of < 2.5.

A 2017 VA Office of Rural Health study examined the utility of OST to screen referred patients aged > 50 years to receive DEXA scans in patient aligned care team (PACT) clinics at 3 different VA locations.13 The study excluded patients who had been screened previously or treated for osteoporosis, were receiving hospice care; 1 site excluded patients aged > 88 years. Two of the sites also reviewed the patient’s medications to screen for agents that may contribute to increased fracture risk. Veterans identified as high risk were referred for education and offered a DEXA scan and treatment. In total, 867 veterans were screened; 19% (168) were deemed high risk, and 6% (53) underwent DEXA scans. The study noted that only 15 patients had reportable DEXA scans and 10 were positive for bone disease.

As there has been documented success in the PACT setting in implementing standardized protocols for screening and treating veterans, it is reasonable to extend the concept into other VA services. The home-based primary care (HBPC) population is especially vulnerable due to the age of patients, limited weight-bearing exercise to improve bone strength, and limited access to DEXA scans due to difficulty traveling outside of the home. Despite these issues, a goal of the HBPC service is to provide continual care for veterans and improve their health so they may return to the community setting. As a result, patients are followed frequently, providing many opportunities for interventions. This study aims to determine the proportion of HBPC patients who are at high risk for osteoporosis and can receive a DEXA scan for evaluation.

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