Many Lupus Patients Forgo Needed Medication: Study

Drugs can reduce symptoms of autoimmune disease, ward off serious complications

From the WebMD Archives

By Amy Norton

HealthDay Reporter

SATURDAY Oct. 26 (HealthDay News) -- Many poorer patients with the autoimmune disease lupus don't take their medications as prescribed, a new U.S. study suggests.

Researchers found that lupus patients on Medicaid -- the public health insurance program for the poor -- were often not sticking with their prescriptions. Over six months, patients picked up enough medication to cover only 31 percent to 57 percent of those days.

The findings are concerning, experts say, not only because lupus drugs can help send symptoms into remission, but because they may also stave off some of the long-term consequences of the disease.

"It's alarming," said lead researcher Dr. Jinoos Yazdany, of the University of California, San Francisco. "These medications have a proven track record of improving patients' outcomes."

The study used pharmacy claims data, so it's not possible to say why people were not taking their medication as prescribed, Yazdany said.

But money could be one factor. Medicaid covers the drugs, Yazdany noted, but even a small co-pay could be a barrier for low-income patients.

Drug side effects could be another issue, Yazdany said, as could a lack of education about the medications. "Some people may not be fully aware of the benefits of these drugs," she said.

Yazdany is scheduled to present the findings Saturday, at the American College of Rheumatology's annual meeting in San Diego.

The most common form of lupus is systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). In SLE, the immune system attacks the body's own tissue, damaging the skin, joints, heart, lungs, kidneys and brain.

The disease mostly strikes women, usually starting in their 20s or 30s.

Lupus drugs include immune-system suppressors, such as cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan) and tacrolimus (Prograf), and anti-malaria drugs, such as hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil), which can ease the fatigue, joint pain and skin rash seen in lupus.

Part of the goal is to control symptom flare-ups, including fatigue, fever, joint pain and skin rash. But the drugs can also reduce organ damage that can lead to kidney failure and heart disease.

The study included 23,187 Medicaid patients, mostly women, who were prescribed at least one drug for lupus. Yazdany's team used pharmacy claims to gauge whether patients were sticking with their prescribed regimen.