Infusion Centers May Best EDs for Treating Sickle Cell Crises

Jacob Remaly

July 05, 2021

Dr Sophie Lanzkron

Adults with sickle cell disease who experienced a vaso-occlusive crisis had substantially better outcomes when they were treated at specialty infusion centers than those treated in emergency departments (EDs), a prospective observational study shows.

At infusion centers, patients received pain medication an average of 70 minutes faster compared with patients treated in EDs (62 vs 132 minutes), according to a study published online in the Annals of Internal Medicine. In addition, patients at infusion centers were 3.8 times more likely to have their pain reassessed within 30 minutes of the first dose. And they were 4 times more likely to be discharged home, the researchers found.

"It's not that the emergency room doctors don't want to do the right thing," study author Sophie Lanzkron, MD, said in an interview. "They do, but they aren't experts in sickle cell disease. They work in an emergency room, which is an incredibly busy, stressful place where they see trauma and heart attacks and strokes and all of these things that need emergency care. And so it just is not the right setting to treat people with sickle cell disease."

To assess whether care at specialty infusion centers or EDs leads to better outcomes for patients with sickle cell disease with uncomplicated vaso-occlusive crises, Lanzkron, director of the Sickle Cell Center for Adults at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and colleagues conducted the ESCAPED (Examining Sickle Cell Acute Pain in the Emergency vs Day Hospital) study.

The trial included 483 adults with sickle cell disease who lived within 60 miles of an infusion center in four US cities: Baltimore, Maryland; Cleveland, Ohio; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Investigators recruited patients between April 2015 and December 2016 and followed them for 18 months after enrollment.

The present analysis focused on data from 269 participants who had infusion center visits or ED visits that occurred during weekdays when infusion centers were open. Two sites had infusion centers solely for adults with sickle cell disease (Baltimore and Milwaukee), and two infusion centers shared infusion space with other hematology-oncology patients. All four sites were in hospitals that also had EDs. 

Although participants may have received comprehensive care at one of the sites with an infusion center, those who lived farther from an infusion center were likely to receive care for acute pain at an ED closer to home, the authors explain in the article.

The investigators used propensity score methodology to balance patient characteristics in the study groups.

Quick, Effective Pain Reduction Is Beneficial

The results suggest that infusion centers "are more likely to provide guideline-based care than EDs," and this care "can improve overall outcomes," the authors write. 

Although the specialty infusion centers the researchers studied used various models, similar outcomes were seen at all of them.

The study did not include patients who had complications of sickle cell disease in addition to vaso-occlusive crisis, the researchers note. 

"[Because] the magnitude of the treatment effects estimated in our study is large and we have captured most of the important potential confounders, an unmeasured confounder that can nullify the treatment effect is unlikely to exist," the authors write. 

Dr Julie Kanter

"Sickle cell disease is a complicated condition that affects multiple organs. Patients who present with acute pain will have better outcomes being treated under providers who know and understand the disease," commented Julie Kanter, MD, director of the adult sickle cell disease program and codirector of the Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "Specialized infusion centers offer the opportunity to both improve outcomes and decrease the cost of care. Most importantly, it is better for the individual with sickle cell disease," she said.

Kanter wrote an accompanying editorial about the ESCAPED findings. The editorialist notes that "opioid medications are the only option to reduce the pain caused by microvascular injury" in patients with sickle cell crisis, although these treatments do not reduce the underlying damage and have substantial side effects and risks. Nevertheless, "quick and effective reduction of pain can allow patients to more easily move, stretch, and breathe — important to increase oxygenation and restore blood flow, which will eventually abate the crisis," Kanter wrote. 

The study shows that the infusion center treatment approach can benefit patients across different settings, commented John J. Strouse, MD, PhD, medical director of the adult sickle cell program at Duke University Sickle Cell Center in Durham, North Carolina, who was not involved in the study. 

"They show that they can definitely get closer to the recommendations of guidelines for acute pain management and sickle cell disease" in a setting that is focused on one problem, he said. "The other piece that is really important is that people are much more likely to go home if you follow the guideline."

Infusion Centers Are Scarce

"These systems need to be built," Lanzkron said. "In most places, patients don't have access to the infusion center model for their care. And in some places, it is not going to be practical." Still, there may be ways to establish infusion locations, such as at oncology centers. And while there are challenges to delivering sickle cell disease care in EDs, "emergency rooms need to try to meet the needs of this patient population as best as they can," Lanzkron said.

"Structural racism has played a role in the quality of care delivered" to patients with sickle cell disease, Lanzkron said. "The big message is there is a better way to do this." 

The study was funded by the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute. Lanzkron's disclosures included grants or contracts with government agencies and companies that are paid to her institution, as well as consulting fees from Bluebird Bio, Novo Nordisk, and Pfizer. Coauthors have disclosed working with sickle cell organizations and various medical companies. Kanter and Strouse have reported no relevant financial relationships.

Ann Intern Med. Published online July 5, 2021. Abstract, Editorial

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