In Focus

Management of the hospitalized ulcerative colitis patient: A primer for the initial approach to care for the practicing gastroenterologist


Once disease severity has been determined, intravenous corticosteroid therapy may be initiated, ideally once CDI and CMV have been excluded. The recommended dosing of intravenous corticosteroids is methylprednisolone 20 mg IV every 8 hours or equivalent. There is no evidence to support additional benefit for doses exceeding these amounts.8 Prior to starting parenteral corticosteroids, it is important to keep in mind the possible need for rescue therapy during the admission. Recommended testing includes hepatitis B surface antigen and antibody, hepatitis B core antibody and tuberculosis testing if there is no documented negative testing within the past 6-12 months. These labs should be drawn prior to steroid treatment to avoid delays in care and indeterminate results. Finally, a lipid profile is recommended for patients who may be cyclosporine candidates pending response to intravenous corticosteroids. Unless the patient has been admitted with a bowel obstruction, which should raise the suspicion that the diagnosis is actually Crohn’s disease, enteral feeding is preferred for UC patients even if they may have significant food aversion. The early involvement of a registered dietitian is valuable to guide dietary choices and recommend appropriate enteral nutrition supplements. During acute flares, patients may find a low-residue diet to be less stimulating to their gut while their acute flare is being treated. Electrolyte abnormalities should be repleted and consistently monitored during the hospitalization. Providing parenteral intravenous iron for anemic patients will expedite correction of the anemia alongside treatment of the underlying UC.

Figure 1. Management guide for hospital admission days 0 and 1

Most UC patients admitted to the hospital will require a multidisciplinary approach with gastroenterologists, surgeons, radiologists, dietitians, and case coordinators/social workers, among others. It is essential to assemble the team, especially the surgeons, earlier during the hospitalization rather than later. It is especially important to discuss the role of the surgeon in the management of UC and explain why the surgeon is being consulted in the context of the patient’s acute presentation. Being transparent about the parameters the GI team are monitoring to determine if and when surgery is the most appropriate and safe approach will improve patients’ acceptance of the surgical team’s role in their care. Specific indications for surgery in ASUC include toxic megacolon, colonic perforation, severe refractory hemorrhage, and failure to respond to medical therapy (Table 1).8

Day 3 – Assessing response to corticosteroids

In addition to daily symptom assessments, a careful abdominal exam should be performed every day with the understanding that steroids (and also narcotics) may mask perforation or pain. Any abrupt decrease or cessation of bowel movements, increasing abdominal distention, or a sudden increase in abdominal pain or tenderness may require abdominal imaging to ensure no interim perforation or severe colonic dilation has occurred while receiving steroid therapy. In these circumstances, the addition of broad spectrum intravenous antibiotics should be considered, particularly if hemodynamic instability (such as tachycardia) is present.

Patients should be assessed for response to intravenous steroid therapy after 3 days of treatment. A meaningful response to corticosteroids is present if the patient has had more than 50% improvement in symptoms, particularly rectal bleeding and stool frequency. A more than 75% improvement in CRP should also be noted from admission to day 3 with an overall trend of improvement.2,21 Additionally, patients should be afebrile, require minimal to no narcotic usage, tolerating oral intake, and be ambulatory. If the patient has met all these parameters, it is reasonable to transition to oral corticosteroids, such as prednisone 40-60 mg daily after a course of 3-5 days of intravenous corticosteroids. Ideally, patients should be observed for 24-48 hours in the hospital after transitioning to oral corticosteroids to make sure that symptoms do not worsen with the switch.

Patients with more than eight bowel movements per day, CRP greater than 4.5 g/dL, deep ulcers on endoscopy, or albumin less than 3.0 g/dL have a higher likelihood of failing intravenous corticosteroid therapy, and these patients should be prepared for rescue therapy.2,21 A patient has failed intravenous corticosteroids by day 3 if they have sustained fever in the absence of an infection, continued CRP elevation or lack of CRP decrease, or ongoing high stool frequency, bleeding, and pain with less than 50% improvement from baseline on admission.8 In the setting of nonresponse to intravenous corticosteroids, it is prudent to involve colorectal surgery to discuss colectomy as an option of equal merit to medical salvage therapies such as infliximab or cyclosporine.

Infliximab is the most readily available rescue therapy for steroid-refractory patients and has been shown to increase colectomy-free survival in patients with ASUC.8 However, patients with the same predictors for intravenous steroid failures (low albumin, high CRP, and/or deep ulcers on endoscopy) are also at the highest risk for infliximab nonresponse. These factors are important to discuss with the patients and colorectal surgery teams when providing the options of treatment strategy, particularly with medication dosing. ASUC with more severe disease biochemically (low albumin, elevated CRP, possibly bandemia) benefit from a higher dose of infliximab at 10 mg/kg, given the likelihood of increased drug clearance in this situation.22,23

From a practical standpoint, it is important to confirm the patient’s insurance status prior to medication administration to make sure therapy can be continued after hospital discharge. Early involvement of the social workers and case coordinators is key to ensuring timely administration of the next dose of treatment. Patients who receive infliximab rescue therapy should be monitored for an additional 1-2 days after administration to ensure they are responding to this therapy with continued monitoring of CRP and symptoms during this period. If there is no response at this point, an additional dose of infliximab may be considered but surgery should not be delayed if there is no meaningful response after the first dose.

Another option for intravenous corticosteroid nonresponders is intravenous cyclosporine because treatment failure rates for cyclosporine and infliximab were similar in head-to-head studies.24 However, patient selection is key to successful utilization of this agent. Unlike infliximab, cyclosporine is primarily an induction agent for steroid nonresponders rather than a maintenance strategy. Therefore, in patients in whom cyclosporine is being considered, thiopurines or vedolizumab are potential options for maintenance therapy. If the patient has poor renal function, low cholesterol, advanced age, significant comorbidities, or a history of nonadherence to therapy, cyclosporine should not be given. Additionally, clinical experience with intravenous cyclosporine administration and monitoring both during inpatient and outpatient care settings should be factored into the decision making for infliximab versus cyclosporine.8

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