DENVER (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) – A recent study of Medicare recipients who experienced a hip fracture found that just 19% of them had been receiving a bone-active osteoporosis treatment before the fracture occurred. That number reveals an alarming trend of underdiagnosis of osteoporosis.

But that number – from a 2016 study in JAMA Internal Medicine – is just the start. After the fracture, the percentage of women receiving treatment barely changed, rising to just 21% ( JAMA Intern Med. 2016 Oct 1;176[10]:1531-8 ).

This trend of under-diagnosis and treatment of osteoporosis has occurred in spite of the fact that effective therapy exists to reduce future fractures. In fact, a single dose of zoledronic acid has been shown to reduce clinical fractures by 35%, and mortality by 28% over an average 2-year follow-up ( N Engl J Med. 2007;357:1799-1809 ).

“To me, this is really a shame,” Douglas Bauer, MD, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said at a session at the annual meeting of the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research that was dedicated to the issue.

Despite those discouraging numbers, the frequency of hip fractures in women older than age 65 years has actually been declining since 2002, from 884/100,000 women to 738/100,000 in 2015. But most endocrinologists don’t expect that to last, and in fact, the number of fractures leveled off from 2012 to 2015. If the linear decline had continued at the same rate as it had from 2002 to 2012, the expected number of fractures in 2015 would have been 693. “Hip fracture rates are higher than what had been projected,” E. Michael Lewiecki, MD , director of the New Mexico Clinical Research & Osteoporosis Center, Albuquerque, said in an interview. Dr. Lewiecki presented the data at the 2016 meeting of the ASBMR ( abstract 1077 ).

It remains unclear why the fracture rate declined despite low levels of diagnosis and treatment. Some researchers, such as Bo Abrahamsen, MD, PhD, suggest there is a population effect. At the ASBMR annual meeting, Dr. Abrahamsen of the University of Southern Denmark, Odense, noted that in the western world, women born in the 1930s appear to be less prone to fractures than other birth cohorts, and it could be that this group contributed to the decline in fracture rates. A Danish study, he said, seems to confirm this idea. As other birth cohorts age, the numbers could well get worse.

And that’s worrying, because a gap in treatment and diagnosis of osteoporosis could lead to an epidemic of new fractures. “We need to address this crisis in health care for a very preventable disease,” Meryl LeBoff, MD , director of the skeletal health and osteoporosis center and bone density unit at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, said in an interview.

There are several likely causes of declining treatment and diagnosis rates. In 2003, a report surfaced that osteonecrosis of the jaw occurred in cancer patients taking bisphosphonates to prevent metastasis to bone. Those patients received doses that were far higher than the typical osteoporosis patient, but the reports spooked patients. In 2005, researchers pinned another rare side effect on bisphosphonates – atypical femur fractures.

Other factors contributed. In 2007, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services cut the reimbursement rate for bone densitometry (DXA) testing, which has led to a drop in the number of tests, from a peak of 17.9% of women over age 65 years having been tested in 2009 to 14.8% in 2014. That has complicated efforts to diagnose osteoporosis, and may be affecting patients’ willingness to undergo therapy. A patient may go to the hospital for a hip fracture, but without a bone density test to raise concerns, she may write the fracture off as an accident. A DXA test that returns an abnormal value can change that. “If you have low BMD and a fracture, you have a worse prognosis and a higher risk of the next fracture. It’s much easier to convince patients [to begin therapy],” said John Carey, MD , a rheumatologist at Galway (Ireland) University Hospitals and president of the International Society for Clinical Densitometry.

Others emphasized the need to get DXA reimbursement raised, at least to a point where physicians can break even on the test. “Unfortunately, what’s happening is that as DXA reimbursement goes down, physicians are investing less in the education of their staff according to current guidelines,” Dr. Lewiecki said. He noted that there is draft legislation in Congress to raise DXA reimbursement ( H.R. 1898 ), although it is currently in committee.

The forces that create the treatment and diagnostic gap aren’t simple, and no single strategy is likely to fix the problem. A number have been proposed.

One is to take a public health approach, which emphasizes tackling the easiest problems first. “In patients who have had a hip fracture, there is no reason that those people should not be targeted for a fracture liaison service [FLS] or to attentive primary care doctors who can evaluate them to put them on drugs,” Dr. Bauer said.

FLS programs seek to quickly identify and provide treatment and monitoring for individuals who are at high risk for additional fractures. The programs identify patients who have suffered a fragility fracture and place them into a coordinated care model. For example, if a radiologist identified a patient of concern, she can be immediately referred to the FLS for quick follow-up, to include bone density scans and other steps to ensure proper diagnosis and treatment. In the absence of an FLS, it could be months before a patient is seen again, if a radiologist refers her at all. “You lose patients. But if they are tied into a coordination of care model, the patient is brought in immediately and they get the attention and awareness. They’re not just lost,” said Debbie Zeldow, executive director of the National Bone Health Alliance (NBHA).

Kaiser Permanente’s Healthy Bones FLS has led to a 38% reduction in the expected hip fracture rate since 1998, and Geisinger Health System’s FLS saved it $7.8 million over 5 years. The institutions have the advantage of being closed systems, and the solution is likely to be trickier in open health systems. “The follow-up is harder in those patients, communication is more difficult, and assessing the effectiveness of any intervention is more difficult because more patients are lost to follow-up. In Kaiser, they do a better job of following up on more patients, but they also have the motivation to treat in that it will save them money in the long run with fewer patients readmitted for additional fractures,” Benjamin Z. Leder, MD , an endocrinologist with Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, and chair of the ASBMR Professional Practice Committee, said in an interview.

Despite their effectiveness, FLS programs could be a tough sell for the upfront investment they require. To help organizations determine the cost-effectiveness of an FLS, the National Bone Health Alliance has developed a return on investment calculator .

And in fact, FLS programs are gaining traction, according to Ms. Zeldow. NBHA has posted a variety of resources for establishing an FLS on its website, which contains webinars and other resources, including the text of patient flyers produced by Kaiser Permanente translated into many languages. “There’s been a huge jump in interest in implementation. I’m getting calls on a daily basis from sites that want to implement an FLS. People are being pinged for readmission, and they’re looking for ways for their hospital or practice to improve outcomes. It’s definitely a way for hospitals to differentiate themselves around care,” Ms. Zeldow said in an interview.

FLS programs reduce secondary fractures, but the ultimate goal is to catch osteoporosis earlier and prevent even first-time fractures. That will require better communication with primary care providers, who bear the brunt of osteoporosis diagnosis and care.

“We need to do a better job of reducing barriers for primary care doctors, to try to minimize unnecessary treatment complexity, and address the fact that this is one of the many prevention issues that physicians are asked to manage, and all that in an increasingly time-constrained world,” Dr. Bauer said.

With that goal in mind, the American College of Physicians released new guidelines in May ( Ann Intern Med. 2017;166[11]:818-39 ). They were intended to identify first-line therapies and simplify matters for primary care physicians, but they drew the ire of many endocrinologists for being too general. NBHA has formed an ACP guideline working group that aims to refine those guidelines. The committee is drafting a statement and a document for patients to help clarify the guidelines, particularly with respect to high-risk patients. The committee also seeks to avoid any rancor. “We’ve made a concerted effort to include primary care doctors, to make sure there’s not a disconnect between experts and general practitioners. We want to make sure it’s a useful tool and we’re not just bashing the guidelines,” Ms. Zeldow said.

Another way to help overburdened primary care providers is to provide training for physicians, especially in underserved areas. The National Osteoporosis Foundation’s TeleECHO program is a remote training service that can help interested local providers elevate their knowledge so they can become a local osteoporosis expert. “Patients can get better care, at more convenience and at lower cost, rather than having to travel to a specialist center far away,” Dr. Lewiecki said.

Patient concerns about side effects, the changing health care climate, and the challenges facing primary care providers add up to difficult environment for countering the reductions in diagnosis and treatment of osteoporosis, but Dr. Lewiecki is hopeful. “Fracture liaison services combined with better education of health care providers through new educational methods I think have great promise. It’s just a matter of getting those things online,” he said.

Dr. Carey has been a speaker for Roche, Pfizer, and AbbVie. Dr. Lewiecki has consulted for Amgen. Dr. Leder has received funding from Lilly and Amgen, and has been a consultant for Lilly, Amgen, and Radius. Dr. Bauer and Ms. Zeldow reported having no financial disclosures.


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