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[Expert column] How to manage moderate to severe ulcerative colitis

Dr. Raymond Cross helps answer the challenging questions of which medicine is optimal for a given patient, and how do we choose?
Picture of Raymond K. Cross, MD, MS, AGAF
Raymond K. Cross, MD, MS, AGAF

Professor of Medicine
University of Maryland School of Medicine

As clinicians, we understand that there is never a good time to be a patient with ulcerative colitis. However, we now have more effective and safe therapeutic options than ever. The challenge has become: Which medicine is optimal for a given patient, and how do we choose? Is a steroid taper best, with transition to a thiopurine? (This strategy is no longer very popular). What about a biologic, and if so, which one?

Unfortunately, we have few comparative efficacy studies to guide us. Network meta-analyses and retrospective studies do offer some guidance, but we still lack the kind of robust evidence we need.

In thinking about medical therapy for ulcerative colitis, one of the key shifts has been away from solitary assessment of current symptomology toward the supplementary evaluation of overall inflammatory burden and risk factors for future colectomy. We now recognize that even in someone with less severe symptoms, substantial inflammation or numerous risk factors for colectomy may warrant consideration of early initiation of more effective treatment.

With all of this in mind, a panel of my colleagues and I launched an interactive decision support tool, in which anyone can enter specific patient characteristics and instantly receive our expert recommendations for management of moderate to severe ulcerative colitis. I invite you to try it.

The experience of creating this tool focused the five of us, as providers who predominantly see patients with Crohn disease or ulcerative colitis, on the thought processes underpinning our treatment decisions.

The prevailing messages among us were that, in the less ill outpatient, we pick the safest therapies first, namely ustekinumab and vedolizumab. In particular, when those patients are of advanced age or have comorbid medical conditions, we are even more likely to select those agents.

And for patients with more severe disease, our go-to options change to infliximab or tofacitinib; this willingness to use tofacitinib makes sense because emerging safety data for this agent seem reassuring.

Beyond these comparatively clear-cut scenarios, other management subtleties exist. For instance, in patients with extraintestinal symptoms, there is a clear shift away from vedolizumab toward agents that are not gut selective (ie, infliximab or tofacitinib, possibly ustekinumab).

Among women of childbearing age, we have really good safety data except with tofacitinib. Network meta-analyses of first-line and second-line pharmacotherapies reinforce that the preferred treatment options for pregnant women with moderate to severe ulcerative colitis include azathioprine, TNF inhibitors, ustekinumab and vedolizumab. Because there are currently limited human data on the use of tofacitinib during pregnancy, other options should be considered in this population, particularly during the first trimester.

And in someone without commercial insurance, we need to think about which drugs are billed under the medical benefit as opposed to the pharmacy benefit. Ultimately, the payor will influence drug selection, particularly for biologic‑naïve patients.

Putting patients first

As time progresses, additional therapies will inevitably be approved and will make drug selection even more challenging. What we really need are precision medicine diagnostics that tell us exactly what drug is best for each patient. What buccal swab, blood test or pinch biopsy will allow us to zero in on the right choice? Those methodologies are still awaited and would be particularly useful for non-specialist providers.

Until then, the process of shared decision-making will be critical. It is our duty as providers to lay out all of the options, give accurate information and assist patients in choosing. With my patients, I discuss the available head-to-head data, for example showing — at least in one trial — improved clinical remission and mucosal healing with vedolizumab versus adalimumab.

Then I look at how risk averse the individual is. Some patients want to get better quickly and are subsequently willing to tolerate more risk. Others are quite nervous, so we go over safety in more depth.

If a patient is very sick, he or she cannot wait four to six weeks to feel better. That may prompt discussion of a steroid bridge to one of the slower onset of action agents compared with immediate initiation of infliximab or tofacitinib.

Finally, I discuss mode of administration to ascertain whether someone is comfortable with self-injection or if he or she might prefer a daily pill or visit to an infusion center.

Sometimes making this choice is overwhelming for patients when multiple options need to be weighed. In these cases, a decision support tool may help focus the conversation on a reduced set of options and mitigate some of that stress.

Cycling and cure

I would also note that just because we have more options available, giving another medical therapy might not be the right thing to do. With every drug you try, there is a chance that a deep remission may be achieved. However, we must also remember that colectomy is a cure. It is admittedly a cure with consequences, but I can count on one hand the number of patients who have told me they regret having a colectomy for ulcerative colitis. Most people delay colectomy far too long and are very happy once it is all said and done because they feel so much better.

One of my favorite such encounters was with a woman in her 60s. I asked her, “Are you having any problems with intimacy now that you have an ileostomy?” Her face brightened and she said, “Gosh no. I’m having sex more than ever. I feel so much better. The ileostomy’s not keeping me from having sex. My diarrhea, fatigue and urgency were keeping me from having sex.”

Of course, sex is merely one metric but speaks to how quality of life is important. Sometimes surgical options are appropriate, even if all drug options have not been exhausted. At every step, if the medicine fails, we owe it to our patients with ulcerative colitis to revisit the available treatment options, including surgery.

How are you managing patients with moderate to severe ulcerative colitis? Click on the claim credit button below to join the discussion by sharing your experiences.  And, again, I invite you to give our decision support tool a try.

Additional CME education opportunities

Take advantage of these additional two programs in the series Expert Advice on Management of Moderate to Severe Ulcerative Colitis, provided by AGA in collaboration with Clinical Care Options and supported by an educational grant from Pfizer Inc.  But act now, CME begins to expire Oct. 27, 2021.

Management of Moderate to Severe Ulcerative Colitis: Treatment Approaches

Anita Afzali, MD, MPH, Ohio State University and Mille D. Long, MD, MPH, AGAF will show you how to apply guideline-based treatment recommendations for patients who continue to have moderately to severely active disease despite conventional immunosuppressant and/or TNF inhibitor treatment trials. The program is divided into several short segments which you can step through using the Video Chapters menu. 0.50 CME expires Nov. 12, 2021.

Expert Advice on Management of Moderate to Severe Ulcerative Colitis - Interactive Decision Support Tool

Use this Interactive Decision Support Tool (IDST) to learn how to individualize treatment for patients with moderate to severe ulcerative colitis. Enter the details of your patient case using dropdown menus and then receive a case-specific treatment recommendation from five experts: Adam Cheifetz, MD, Harvard Medical School, Raymond K. Cross, MD, MS, University of Maryland School of Medicine, David A. Shwartz, MD, AGAF, Vanderbilt University, Anita Afzali, MD, MPH, Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and Mille D. Long, MD, MPH, AGAF, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 0.25 CME expires Oct. 27, 2021.

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