SAN DIEGO (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) – New research into factors that predict which systemic lupus erythematosus patients are at high risk for hospitalization is beginning to identify the contribution of medication nonadherence to the problem.

Compared with others hospitalized for systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), high-risk patients were an adjusted 10 percentage points less likely to show evidence of adherence to prescribed drugs, according to a study presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Rheumatology.

“Medication nonadherence remains an important problem among patients with SLE. It is a major modifiable cause to help decrease hospital admissions and readmissions and decrease risk for morbidity and mortality associated with SLE,” study coauthor Allen P. Anandarajah, MBBS , said in an interview after the ACR meeting.

Earlier this year, Dr. Anandarajah and his colleagues reported on the findings of a 2-year analysis of SLE admissions at Strong Memorial Hospital, part of the University of Rochester (N.Y.) Medical Center, where he serves as associate professor of rheumatology and clinical director of the allergy, immunology, and rheumatology division.

The researchers found that the average patient required $51,808 in treatment costs annually; the average stay was 8.5 days ( Lupus. 2017;26[7]:756-61 ).

Dr. Anandarajah led another study, released at the 2016 ACR annual meeting, that found patients at high risk of hospitalization were more likely to be younger, have earlier SLE onset, and be African American ( abstract 122 ).

As for medication nonadherence, a systematic review of 11 studies published this year found that “the percentage of nonadherent patients ranged from 43% to 75%, with studies consistently reporting that over half of patients are nonadherent” ( Arthritis Care Res [Hoboken]. 2017 Nov;69[11]:1706-13 ).

Nonadherence is an especially significant issue “among a small group of high-risk, high-need patients,” Dr. Anandarajah said.

For the new study, the researchers aimed to better understand “if medication adherence was a risk factor for hospital admissions among SLE patients,” he said.

They identified a group of 28 high-risk patients out of 171 hospitalized SLE patients who were admitted from 2013 to 2015. Compared with other patients, the high-risk patients, who required three or more annual admissions, were younger (mean age, 39.6 vs. 47.6; P = .03), less likely to be female (82% vs. 92%; P = .09), and more likely to be African American (61% vs. 41%; P = .05).

Why might the young be less adherent? “Younger people are more likely to have difficulty with taking care of themselves when afflicted with chronic diseases due to lack of understanding of the implications of insufficiently treating their illness, poor coping skills, peer pressures about dealing with potential side effects like weight gain with steroids, and financial reasons, including lack of insurance,” he said.

As for African Americans, possible reasons for lower adherence include “cultural reasons such as a taboo about illness and misconceptions about need for continuous use of medications, lower educational levels, lack of trust in their health care providers/health care team, and socioeconomic reasons/financial issues,” he said.

The researchers linked patients to a pharmacy claims database to calculate the medication possession ratio, “an indicator of whether a patient had adequate medication supply in a given time frame,” as the study puts it. A total of 102 patients had complete pharmacy data.

The researchers found that the unadjusted mean medication possession ratio was lower in high-risk patients, compared with the others (73.4% vs. 79.9%; P = .30), and was an estimated 10 percentage points lower in an adjusted analysis that nearly reached statistical significance (P = .06).

“While it was not significant, there was a trend, and one could possibly expect a significant value with larger numbers,” Dr. Anandarajah said.

How can adherence be improved in SLE? In an interview, Michelle Petri, MD , professor of medicine and codirector of the lupus center at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, said she saw a major improvement in hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil) adherence after introducing blood level testing.

“I believe rheumatologists should introduce drug monitoring for all of our important drugs: [hydroxychloroquine] (where it must be a whole blood level and not plasma), azathioprine, methotrexate, and mycophenolate,” said Dr. Petri, who praised the new research as “an excellent first study.”

Going forward, Dr. Anandarajah said his university has started a program designed to help poor, high-risk SLE patients in the Rochester area through a clinic in the inner city, coordinated care with nurses, and a series of focus-group meetings and educational programs for patients and providers. “We hope to improve compliance with outpatient visits, medication adherence, and self-management skills,” he said.

The study authors and Dr. Petri reported no relevant disclosures. No specific study funding was reported.

SOURCE: C. Thirukuraman et al. ACR 2017 abstract 223 .