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Asthma Treatment in a Population-Based Cohort: Putting Step-Up and Step-Down Treatment Changes in Context


      To assess the frequency and types of visits related to modifications in the intensity of asthma medications.


      We retrospectively reviewed the medical records of adults (aged 18-40 years) and children (aged 6-17 years) living in Olmsted County, Minnesota, to evaluate changes in asthma medications by dose and drug class and site and type of visit (routine vs unscheduled) at the time of changes. All records from all visits were reviewed for each patient to identify asthma-related visits at all sites of care from January 1, 2002, through December 31, 2003.


      The study consisted of 397 adults and children. In 255 patients, 597 asthma medication changes occurred. Step-up changes usually occurred because of an exacerbation or loss of control of asthma and adhered to the medication hierarchy in the national asthma guidelines. Twenty step-up changes involved skipping inhaled corticosteroid (ICS) monotherapy and moving directly to combined ICSs plus a long-acting β-agonist (LABA). Lack of documentation of asthma symptom frequency or interference with activities made it impossible to determine whether these “skips” were appropriate. Only 78 physician-directed step-down changes were documented, usually to a lower dose of combined ICSs and LABAs or a move from combined ICSs and LABAs to anti-inflammatory monotherapy. Patients initiated additional step-down changes between encounters. Step-down changes occurred at routine or follow-up asthma visits, but the limited number of such visits provided few opportunities for step-down care.


      The continuing episodic-style treatment of asthma aimed at exacerbation management facilitates step-up changes in asthma therapy. The dearth of asthma evaluation visits limited opportunities to step down use of asthma medications and to provide long-term asthma management.
      ED (emergency department), ICS (inhaled corticosteroid), LABA (long-acting β-agonist), LM (leukotriene modifier), NAEPP (National Asthma Education and Prevention Program), SABA (short-acting β-agonist)
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