Treat to target in RA: Finding the right path forward


It makes intuitive sense: Setting a specific goal and working quickly and systematically toward it should bring better results than slowly floundering toward an amorphous endpoint.

That’s the basic idea behind treat-to-target (TTT) strategies in rheumatoid arthritis, and since 2010, data seem to support it: Rheumatologists who pick a therapeutic goal and a related disease activity measure and work in partnership with cooperative patients to achieve it, get better clinical responses.

So important has this concept become that it’s now being tied to reimbursement. Rheumatologists who submit proof that they record disease activity measures in their patients will get points toward fulfilling quality reporting requirements for the Merit-Based Incentive Payment System (MIPS) option in the Quality Payment Program established by the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015. Those points go toward achieving a bonus in Medicare reimbursement; those who can’t show it will edge toward a financial ding.

But despite the twin carrots of better patient outcomes and bonus payments from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the stick of a 4%-9% Medicare payment penalty during the years 2019-2022 (and 9% thereafter) for quality outcome measures reported in 2017 and beyond, studies show that up to 60% of U.S. rheumatologists don’t regularly incorporate TTT strategies into how they treat their RA patients.

Dr. Jeffrey R. Curtis Courtesy UAB Photo

Dr. Jeffrey R. Curtis

“It’s not an easy question, and there’s not a single answer,” said Jeffrey Curtis, MD, the William J. Koopman Professor of Rheumatology and Immunology at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.

“There are patient reasons. There are doctor reasons. And there are extrinsic reasons. But I would say the number one reason it’s had limited adoption is that it simply hasn’t been made easy enough.”

The ABCs of TTT

In 2010, Austrian rheumatologist Josef Smolen, MD, leading an international task force, proposed 10 recommendations for improving the care of patients with RA. These were based on the concept that choosing a therapeutic target – low disease activity or remission – and aggressively pursuing it with frequent medication changes accompanied by frequent disease activity measurements would result in improved short- and long-term outcomes.

Disease activity measures (DAMs) were crucial to the concept. In order to treat to a target, one must not only choose a target but also have a validated means to regularly measure progress. The task force didn’t say which DAM would be most appropriate, and research since then suggests that the tool used to measure progress doesn’t matter nearly as much as the target itself.

Shared decision making is also a core tenet of the technique. Physicians work with patients to identify the best treatment target for each individual and decide together how to reach it.

It is not a new concept, Dr. Smolen and his colleagues explained in their landmark paper (Ann Rheum Dis. 2010 Apr;69[4]:631-7). “In many other areas of medicine, treatment targets have been defined to improve outcomes, leading to a reduction in the risk of organ damage. In the care of patients with diabetes, hyperlipidemia, and hypertension, these aspects have been adopted widely in practice; doctors order laboratory tests for cholesterol and triglycerides, blood glucose and HbA1c [hemoglobin A1c] levels, check blood pressure, and adapt therapy accordingly, and patients know these values and are aware of the treatment targets.”

Yet rheumatologists had not adopted a similar paradigm, despite the surge in availability of effective disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs). Although clinical studies of these new drugs clearly showed that remission was possible for many patients and that achieving remission quickly could prevent irreversible joint damage, few patients were getting those drugs even if they had long-standing disease.

The task force suggested setting a treatment aim of remission or low disease activity, seeing patients every 1-3 months, and switching therapy as often as necessary to reach that goal. Tracking improvement required consistent measurements and recording of a DAM. The recommendations, which were updated in 2014, didn’t specify a certain DAM, saying that the patient’s individual clinical picture should guide that choice (Ann Rheum Dis. 2016 Jan;75[1]:3-15). Shared decision making between the patient and rheumatologist was at the foundation of this concept.

Fast-forward to 2015. As TTT was increasingly embraced in Europe, data began to emerge supporting its clinical validity. A study presented at the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) annual meeting in San Francisco that year showed that treating RA patients toward a target of remission or low disease activity worked immediately and resulted in higher remission rates.

Sofia Ramiro, MD, of Leiden (Netherlands) University Medical Center found that employing a TTT strategy increased the likelihood that a patient would achieve remission by 52%. She also found that TTT strategies lowered disease activity and even improved remission rates for patients who had never received DMARDs.

But in 2017, a meta-analysis found conflicting results among the 16 published randomized, controlled trials comparing TTT against usual care (Health Technol Assess 2017. doi: 10.3310/hta21710). The authors concluded that TTT was more effective for newly diagnosed patients, in whom it increased the chance of remission by about 50%. For those with longstanding disease, TTT was not significantly different from usual care.

Despite limited, and somewhat contradictory, clinical evidence, TTT is becoming increasingly accepted, especially in Europe. In 2016, the European League Against Rheumatism updated its recommendations for RA management (Ann Rheum Dis. 2017 Jun;76[6]:960-77). The document contained a recommendation to use low disease activity or sustained remission as the treatment target for every patient, to monitor disease activity with a validated measure every 1-3 months, and to change therapy as often as every 3 months in the case of no improvement or by 6 months if the target hasn’t been reached.

In its most recent 2015 RA treatment guidelines, the ACR also endorsed the strategy, though somewhat obliquely, and did not require rheumatologists to conform to it (Arthritis Care Res. 2016 Jan;68[1]:1-25).

The concept of TTT, if not the explicit demand to practice it, now appears in the list of quality indicators rheumatologists can choose from in order to fulfill quality performance reporting requirements in Merit-Based Incentive Payment System. Periodic assessment of disease activity in RA patients with a validated DAM is one of the acceptable quality measures for rheumatology. It’s not designated as a high-priority measure, but there it is, item No. 177, tying clinicians at least indirectly to a TTT approach for their Medicare patients: The percentage of patients aged 18 years and older with a diagnosis of RA who have an assessment and classification of disease activity within 12 months.


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