Short-term Oxygen Prescriptions Lead to Inappropriate Long-term Use

Aaron B. Holley, MD


April 15, 2021

In past Medscape posts, I've railed against the cost of inappropriate prescriptions for oxygen. A recent review recommended against prescribing oxygen for patients with isolated exertional or nocturnal desaturations, and recently published randomized trials found no demonstrable benefit to oxygen use in the absence of resting hypoxemia. My oxygen ire was previously directed at inappropriate screening for nocturnal or exertional hypoxemia in outpatients with COPD, a common practice in clinics where I've worked. However, oxygen prescriptions at hospital discharge are a far more pernicious cause of wasted resources.

Prescriptions at hospital discharge, sometimes referred to as short-term oxygen therapy (STOT), account for a large proportion of total oxygen use. Past data have shown that the term "STOT" is a misnomer, as most patients provided with oxygen at discharge are never reevaluated and become long-term oxygen users. The high cost of durable medical equipment related to oxygen delivery prompted the American Thoracic Society and American College of Chest Physicians to recommend postdischarge reassessment of oxygen needs in their Choosing Wisely campaign for adult pulmonary medicine.

A recent study published in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society (Ann ATS) highlights the benefits available if we decide to "choose wisely." The authors studied patients covered by Veterans Affairs and discharged on STOT between 2006 and 2011. Only 43.6% (287/659) had complete reassessment (oxygen testing at rest and with ambulation) within 90 days. Of those, 124 (43.2%) were eligible for discontinuation via Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) Guidelines. A total of 70.7% (466/659) were tested at rest, and only 15.7% (73/466) had resting hypoxemia. If one accepts the results of the recently published Long-Term Oxygen Treatment Trial, this means that 84.3% (393/466) would be eligible for oxygen discontinuation.

The Ann ATS study provides a blueprint for how we might improve these dismal numbers. There were five separate sites reviewed in their paper. At one site, reassessment occurred in 78.5% of STOT patients and 100% had oxygen discontinued when appropriate. What was their secret? An automatic alert system and a dedicated clinic, coordinator, and respiratory therapist. Also, among the 124 patients who had a full reassessment and no longer qualified for oxygen, 86.3% had it discontinued.

There are countless reasons why STOT is common, but discontinuation is not. Most COPD exacerbations are managed by non-pulmonologists on general medicine wards prior to discharge. In my experience, these physicians are reluctant to release a patient with exertional hypoxia without STOT. They also assume that the pulmonary clinic will do its job during the obligatory outpatient follow-up appointment they schedule with us. At the follow-up, the patient and physician are reluctant to stop therapy due to psychologic dependence and therapeutic overconfidence, respectively.

In summary, STOT following hospitalization comprises the majority of all oxygen prescriptions. Historically, the United States provides far more oxygen than other developed countries, and only CMS reimbursement changes have bent the "overprescription" curve. The Ann ATS study shows that a well-designed program at the hospital level can put oxygen decisions back in the hands of providers.

Let's "choose wisely" and follow what works, or we'll have only ourselves to blame when reimbursement decisions are taken out of our hands.

Aaron B. Holley, MD, is an associate professor of medicine at Uniformed Services University and program director of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. He covers a wide range of topics in pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine.

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