The AHA 2014 Scientific Sessions are over and I have already written twice about IMPROVE IT but I feel compelled to write again. Although the media has been oddly silent about the trial (why is that I wonder???), I predict its fallout will greatly impact the disciplines of Cardiovascular Disease Prevention, Clinical Lipidology, and even the essence of clinical practice. The reasons are manifold. First, the trial proved two critical theories: a lower LDL cholesterol level is better, and statins are not the only way to achieve a clinically relevant LDL reduction. Additional key considerations from IMPROVE IT include:
- Lower LDL in properly chosen patients (and probably almost everyone) yields lower rates of stroke and heart attack, the two most formidable foes of modern man. For example, in the trial, an LDL of 53 was significantly better than an LDL of 70. Should we doctors then aim for 40, or perhaps even 25?
- In our high-risk patients should we consistently and continuously add medications to statins in order to drive cholesterol levels lower and lower? For example, in a patient with a prior heart attack is it now fair to accept 70 for an LDL when we know that 53 would decrease our patient’s chance of having a recurrent and potentially life-threatening event?
- What do we do with the hotly debated 2013 ACC/AHA Cholesterol Guidelines? They eliminated LDL goals and allowed for the use of Zetia only with individualized – and typically time-prohibitive – clinician/patient discourse, but they did NOT encourage driving LDL lower than 70. The Guidelines advocated for an LDL response to therapy of > 50%. So where does that leave our heart patients who start with LDLs of 180, for example. If they achieve the intended LDL reduction of 50% and thereby remain with an LDL of 90 mg/dL the guidelines surely say all is well – job well done. They state there is no indication to go further. Well now there is an indication. Now we can say with certainty that an LDL of 53 is a far better goal than 90. Having an LDL of 90 leaves significant and now manageable residual risk. So then how can a health care provider in good conscience advocate keeping such a patient at an LDL that clearly conveys greater risk?
- The Guidelines also strongly advocate our utilization of maximum statin doses prior to adding an agent like Zetia. Knowing that higher dose statins produce more side effects while yielding a diminishing return on cholesterol lowering, wouldn’t it now be more prudent for doctors to prescribe low dose statins in combination with Zetia? This would limit side effects while yielding lower LDL levels than would the Guideline recommended approach. More food for thought.
- How will insurance providers respond to Improve-It’s results? After the ACC/AHA Guidelines’ release, with lightening speed they downgraded access to add-on therapies such as Zetia. Of course that saved them money. So what now? Will they respond in kind, follow the science, and quickly allow patients access to these medications? We shall see but I have my doubts. Profits it seems oftentimes take precedence over science and health.
- One more crack at the Guidelines for now: It is true that we do not know what represents the optimal LDL cholesterol level in human beings. Based upon our ever-expanding understanding of lipids including our body’s limited need for extraneous cholesterol however, it is safe to say that that level is probably quite low, perhaps even as low as 25 or 30 mg/dL. And, given the fact that many of us are goal-oriented, wouldn’t it now make sense to join our friends across the pond as well as our very learned friends here at home in the National Lipid Association and simply reinstate LDL goals?
- As I sit at my desk tapping these keys I am clearly frustrated by the politics and economics woven inextricably into the fabric of medical practice. But I am also comforted and encouraged by the knowledge that many of us have already spent the last decade and beyond practicing the way we felt the science dictated. And by so doing, in the matter of LDL-lowering with Zetia, for every 120 patients we’ve treated in an Improve-It style, we’ve saved 3 from enduring a stroke or heart attack. This fact renders all our struggles worthwhile.
On a final note let us not forget that doctors have NO financial incentive to prescribe these medications. Our only “dog in the fight” is protecting our patients from harm. Insurance providers often do have a financial incentive to preclude doctors from prescribing some medicines (typically those that cost them more money). So whom do you, the patients, want to be in control of your medication regimen – the more highly educated and clearly non-conflicted physicians, or the less knowledgeable and often-conflicted insurance carriers? The answer to me seems pretty clear.