There is considerable controversy about the regular use of short-acting beta-agonists for the treatment of asthma. Although case-control studies have suggested that excessive use of these drugs may worsen asthma control and increase the risk of fatal or near-fatal asthma, the controversy remains unresolved because of the confounding that exists among disease control, disease severity and the use of short-acting beta-agonists. Whatever the cause-and-effect relation between the use of short-acting beta-agonists and disease severity, we hypothesized that their excessive use, in conjunction with underuse of inhaled corticosteroids, would be a marker for poorly controlled asthma and excessive use of health care resources.
To characterize the pattern of health services utilization among asthmatic patients taking various doses of inhaled beta-agonists and corticosteroids in British Columbia, we linked the relevant health administrative databases. All patients between 5 and 50 years of age for whom a prescription for a short-acting beta-agonist was filled in 1995 and whose prescription data were captured through the provincial drug plan were included in a retrospective analysis of prescriptions for asthma drugs, physician prescribing patterns and health services utilization. Patients' use of asthma medication was classified as appropriate (low doses of short-acting beta-agonist and high doses of inhaled corticosteroid) or inappropriate (high doses of short-acting beta-agonist and low doses of inhaled corticosteroid), and the 2 resulting groups were compared, by means of logistic, Poisson and gamma regression, for differences in prescribing patterns, physician visits and use of hospital resources.
A total of 23,986 patients were identified as having filled a prescription for a short-acting beta-agonist (for inhalation) in 1995. Of these, 3069 (12.8%) filled prescriptions for 9 or more canisters of beta-agonist, and of this group of high-dose beta-agonist users, 763 (24.9%) used no more than 100 micrograms/day of inhaled beclomethasone. On average, those with inappropriate use of beta-agonists visited significantly more physicians for their prescriptions (1.8 v. 1.4), and each of these physicians on average wrote significantly more prescriptions for asthma medications per patient than the physicians who prescribed to appropriate users (5.2 v. 2.5 prescriptions). Patients with inappropriate use were more likely to be admitted to hospital (adjusted relative risk [RR] 1.68, 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.25-2.26), were admitted to hospital more frequently (adjusted RR 1.81, 95% CI 1.41-2.32) and were more likely to require emergency admission (adjusted RR 1.93, 95% CI 1.35-2.77).
Despite the widespread distribution of guidelines for asthma pharmacotherapy, inappropriate use of asthma medications persists (specifically excessive use of inhaled short-acting beta-agonists combined with underuse of inhaled corticosteroids). Not only are patients who use medication inappropriately at higher risk for fatal or near-fatal asthma attacks, but, as shown in this study, they use significantly more health care resources than patients with appropriate medication use.
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