Study Shows How COVID-19 Disrupted RA Meds

Richard Mark Kirkner

April 22, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

During the first 3 months of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, about one-third of people with rheumatoid arthritis in the United States made changes in their RA medications, and, before the American College of Rheumatology tweaked its guidelines midway through that period, they were about twice as likely to make medication changes on their own than before the pandemic, according to an analysis of data in FORWARD, the National Databank for Rheumatic Diseases.

The study, published in Arthritis Care & Research, also found that about 10% of RA patients on hydroxychloroquine lost access to the drug at a time it was drawing interest as a treatment for COVID-19. Another finding was that a high percentage of patients on non–tumor necrosis factor biologic disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (bDMARDs) and Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitors canceled or postponed appointments.

Dr Kaleb Michaud

"Our results show that persons with RA who had medication changes in the first 3 months of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. were more likely to have worse disease activity and higher exposure to prior DMARDs, but no statistical difference was found in terms of comorbidities," first author Kaleb Michaud, PhD, and coauthors wrote. Michaud is with the National Databank for Rheumatic Diseases, Wichita, Kan., and the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha.

The study evaluated responses from 734 adults who participated in FORWARD, an observational, multidisease registry. They answered online surveys about COVID-19 in May 2020 and had provided data on their medication use before the pandemic. A total of 30% (n = 221) reported medication changes in that period.

Details on Medication Changes

Medication changers were more likely to use glucocorticoids (GCs) (32.6% vs. 18.1%) and less likely to use nonhydroxychloroquine conventional DMARDs (49.3% vs. 62%) pre-COVID. Changers also reported higher rates of economic hardship during the pandemic (22.6% vs. 14.6%).

In the midst of the study period, the ACR issued a clinical guideline for treatment of rheumatic and musculoskeletal diseases (RMDs), emphasizing the need to maintain DMARD therapy, control disease activity, and reduce prednisone/GC use. The guideline advised continuing hydroxychloroquine and interleukin-6 inhibitor biologics in people with suspected or confirmed COVID-19.

Michaud and coauthors acknowledged the ongoing lack of knowledge about real-world treatment patterns for RA during the pandemic. They set out with this study to fill those knowledge gaps.

They noted that patients on bDMARDs (17.6%) and JAK inhibitors (17.1%) were more than twice as likely to discontinue medications than were those on conventional DMARDs (8.2%).

Switching to telehealth was the most common pandemic-related behavior change among patients in all DMARD groups, with rates ranging from 31% to 47.1%, followed by canceling or postponing appointments, with rates ranging from 27.9% to 36.4% depending on the DMARD group.

The study also found that RA patients widely adopted the behavior changes that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended during the pandemic, although the rates of restricting social contacts were significantly lower than the 90% reported in an early Italian study.

Michaud and coauthors also provided some explanation of why people on GCs and DMARDs were more likely than others to change medication patterns. "This may reflect efforts to reduce the perceived risk of infections due to GCs as well as the likely less-controlled disease activity associated with GC use," they wrote. While the ACR's early pandemic guidance followed the 2015 guidelines – that patients should continue on GCs at the "lowest possible dose" and not stop them "abruptly" – most U.S. rheumatologists reported cutting back on GC use during the pandemic.

The researchers acknowledged that evidence linking GC use with hospitalization for COVID-19, which emerged after they had surveyed study participants, was consistent their findings, but that the overall risk of COVID-19 in RA patients still isn't known.

Pfizer funded the analysis, and a coauthor is an employee of Pfizer.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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