"Prescription drug use and polypharmacy rates among adults with ASD [autism spectrum disorder] are substantially higher than those in an age-, sex-, and race-matched cohort of adults without ASD."
That sentence taken from the paper by Rini Vohra and colleagues  (open-access available here) is probably not likely to win any 'novel findings of the year' awards given the already quite voluminous data published on the medication use and autism (see here for example). What gives the Vohra data a bit of an edge is that: (a) they included data for some 1700 adults with autism "matched 1:3 with adults without autism", (b) data were derived from administrative health insurance claims databases in the United States ("Medicaid programs"), and (c) they examined "the rates of prescription drug use, general polypharmacy, and psychotropic polypharmacy among adults" thus were able to detail not just psychotropic medication use but also that for other, more general conditions too.
Their findings were stark. Accompanying that opening sentence on medication use and autism, authors reported that: "Annually, almost 75% of adults with ASD had >20 prescription drug claims compared with 33% of adults without ASD." That's more than 20 prescription medication claims per year.
Further: "Other than psychotropics, many adults with ASD used medical prescription drugs such as antimicrobials (47%), dermatologic agents (48%), respiratory agents (38%), gastrointestinal agents (31%), alternative medications (25%), antiparkinsonian agents (22.6%), antihyperlipidemics/statins (7.3%), and immunologics (2.0%)." So when we start talking about the label of autism not appearing in some sort of diagnostic vacuum, and particularly that various medical comorbidity seem to be 'over-represented' when it comes to autism (see here), this is reflected in the large burden of medication being dispensed. If readers trawl through the adjusted odds ratios (AORs) generated when those with autism were compared with controls (Table 1), you'll note that many classes of medicine were more frequently prescribed to those with autism. And where medicines were less frequently prescribed to the autism group, there were some potentially telling signs too: analgesics (used for pain relief), antidiabetics and antimicrobials. One could argue that maybe those diagnosed with autism have less need of things like pain relief or antibiotics or less likely to need antidiabetic medicines. One might however similarly argue that their medical and healthcare screening services could perhaps be 'less rigorous' than those not diagnosed with autism too, potentially as a result of various factors (see here).
Onwards: "Adults with ASD and a psychiatric comorbidity such as an adjustment disorder (26%), mood disorder (31%), or schizophrenia (32%) had significantly high rates of psychotropic polypharmacy." I probably don't need to say much more about this sentence aside from the fact that mood disorder including things like depression are not uncommon diagnoses alongside autism (see here). The links with the schizophrenia spectrum are also not to be underestimated (see here).
Finally: "Older age, female gender, White race, and presence of three or more comorbid conditions among adults with ASD is significantly associated with using six or more prescription drug classes per year." This sentence is not a roadmap to predicting who will need what medicines when it comes to autism but does provide some important information. There is for example, a woeful lack of research on autism in a longitudinal sense (see here) despite the topic of ageing and autism being debated time and time again. Inevitably as people age, their medication requirements are likely to change (increase?); this is as true for autism as it is for the not-autism population.
I included the words 'good medicines management required' in the title of this post because, as you can see, the level of prescription medicines use when it comes to autism can be high and one needs to be careful that medicines are appropriate, monitored regularly and don't interact with one and another. Given what is also known about psychotropic medicines in particular in terms of potential side-effects (see here and see here for examples), the onus is surely on prescribers to keep an even closer eye on those with autism who are being medicated under their care.
Medication is a part of life when it comes to autism. I base that last sentence on the wealth of data, peer-reviewed and otherwise, that has been published on this topic. I'm sure nobody particularly likes the idea of medication particularly when it comes to autism and certainly nobody should like the idea that some people on the autism spectrum are receiving quite a lot of prescription medicine concurrently and over quite long periods of time. But here's the thing, medication (generally) serves an important purpose. In the case of the antiepileptics/anticonvulsants it can be life-saving. Where mood disorders such as depression are being pharmacologically treated, it can be life-saving. Until, science is able to get a better idea of why some many conditions/labels seem to be over-represented when it comes to autism, medication is often all that it can offer at the moment...
 Vohra R. et al. Prescription Drug Use and Polypharmacy Among Medicaid-Enrolled Adults with Autism: A Retrospective Cross-Sectional Analysis. Drugs Real World Outcomes. 2016 Nov 21.
Vohra R, Madhavan S, Sambamoorthi U, StPeter C, Poe S, Dwibedi N, & Ajmera M (2016). Prescription Drug Use and Polypharmacy Among Medicaid-Enrolled Adults with Autism: A Retrospective Cross-Sectional Analysis. Drugs - real world outcomes PMID: 27873285
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