A Rational Approach to Managing Comorbidities

OCTOBER 01, 2006
Jeannette Yeznach Wick, RPh, MBA, FASCP, and Guido R. Zanni, PhD

Short-and long-term treatment plans, acute exacerbations, new disorders, interactions, complicated monitoring, and specialist referrals. Comorbidities frustrate providers and patients, and few management guidelines exist. Some health plans offer disease or case management programs for patients with comorbidities, but most patients see individual providers, increasing the risk of fragmented care and negative outcomes.

Comorbidity is a predictor of mortality.1 Concordant comorbidities, such as obesity and diabetes, emanate from the same pathophysiology, whereas discordant conditions arise from separate pathophysiologies.2 Discordant comorbidities among those suffering from mental illness, for example, include hypertension (22.2%), gastroesophageal reflux disease (13.7%), and asthma (10.5%).3

Common Comorbidities

Approximately half of all patients with chronic conditions have comorbidities. Increasing age is a factor: among people over 65 years old, 84% present with 2 or more chronic conditions, compared with 35% of patients 45 to 65 years of age and 13% of those aged 20 to 44.4

The pervasiveness of comorbidity is especially apparent in hospitals. In 1997 and 2002, respectively, 54% and 60% of hospitalized patients had at least 1 comorbidity, and 33% and 37% had 2 or more.5 The top 6 in 2002 were hypertension (29.4%), chronic obstructive lung disease (12.1%), diabetes mellitus (11.8%), fluid/electrolyte disorders (11.7%), iron deficiency/anemia (7.9%), and congestive heart failure (5.7%).5 Obesity, absent from the top 10 in 1997, earned the dubious distinction of 10th place in 2002. Age matters here, too. Fluid and electrolyte disorders are more likely among pediatric patients.5

Medication management concerns vary for different comorbidities. Table 12,6-11 lists common comorbidities and disease states.

Rational Review

Whereas all comorbidities need attention, acute or life-threatening conditions need priority assessment and treatment guided by rational drug use. Rational drug use addresses verified patient information with scientifically sound evidence to select the least expensive medication that meets individual patients' needs in appropriate doses for an adequate period of time. It means that patients can store medications correctly and conveniently and take them as prescribed.12 Rational drug use increases in importance with complex, lifelong treatment, especially because patients can be unpredictable, and new science constantly augments existing knowledge. Some suggestions for pharmacists follow.

Review All Medication-use Patterns

Problems with patient nonadherence and self-medication escalate with chronic comorbidities. Prescriber issues include inappropriate or needless drug use, antibiotic overuse or misuse, prescribing of ineffective drugs intentionally for placebo effect, and undertreatment. Systemic pressure points include reliance on pharmaceutical sales representatives for information, inadequate assessment opportunity or appointment duration, and poor consensus about treatments or alternatives.12,13 These problems can be frustrating. At the patient, prescriber, and system levels, adequate knowledge may not always change behavior.13

Understand Predictable Paths

Distinct patient populations have similar comorbidities, and pharmacists need to know their clientele's most common ones. Clinicians must appreciate that not all comorbidities require the same level of clinical effort; focusing solely on concordant comorbidities is short-sighted.2 Acknowledging common comorbidities as well as related and unrelated risk factors, clinicians should employ appropriate screening tools; encourage lifestyle modifications such as weight control, exercise, and smoking cessation; and teach trigger avoidance.8

Time the Treatments

Addressing all comorbidities concurrently may be unwise and impractical. With heavy workloads and care plans dictating shorter visits, clinicians often have insufficient time to cover all problems simultaneously or comprehensively. Even if they did, the process might overwhelm patients. Alternatively, clinicians must negotiate problem lists with patients, agreeing on problems of greatest urgency and time frames in which to address others. Pressured primary care providers will welcome care and counseling provided by other clinicians, especially if it is reinforcing.2

Evaluate Disease Trajectory

When comorbidities are identified, clinicians prognosticate?forecast the disease's probable trajectory?based on the individual patient's age, gender, functional status, lifestyle, and life expectancy. Reversible causes or exacerbating factors should be addressed first. Patients' preference to address symptomatic problems and de-emphasize symptomless issues underscores the preventive care challenge, especially if prophylaxis causes side effects.

When a patient has a condition that is imminently terminal, discontinuing chronic medications may increase comfort. A patient's distraught remark, "But my doctor said I needed to take this for the rest of my life!" may reflect genuine fear, and responses require good bedside manner.14

Review Drug Regimens

When patients with comorbidities present, pharmacists must review their drug regimens carefully (Table 24). Increasingly, pharmacy software programs are doing some of the drug regimen review (DRR). Most screen for drug interactions, dosing irregularities, and blatant red flags, and some will suggest better alternatives in terms of effectiveness or cost.

Rational Intervention

Some basic issues should guide pharmacists' interventions.

Patient Education

Patients need a significant amount of time to self-manage comorbidities and to conduct their own risk-benefit analyses. Patient-clinician relationships will influence adherence, as will cost; comorbidities escalate out-of-pocket drug costs exponentially.2 Pharmacists are well-placed to help patients understand potential disease trajectories and care processes.

Clinical Consultations

Numerous studies have examined the cost-effectiveness of patient-specific interventions, structured order forms, and educational campaigns directed at prescribers. Most evidence suggests that printed materials alone or government warnings are ineffective.15-18 Face-to-face discussions and the application of treatment guidelines work better.18-20 Before talking with prescribers or other care team members, pharmacists need to check DRR results. They should prepare to present findings and suggestions concisely, respectfully, and confidently. All recommendations should be supported and supportable.

Final Thought

Despite public health campaigns, Americans' waistlines continue to expand, as do comorbid conditions. For many patients, pharmacy is the unifying link. It offers an opportunity for valuable counseling services.

Ms. Wick is a senior clinical research pharmacist at the National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md. Dr. Zanni is a psychologist and health-systems consultant based in Alexandria,Va. The views expressed are those of the authors and not those of any government agency.


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