Texts Boost Activity, Quality of Life in Patients With Heart Failure and Diabetes

Mitchel L. Zoler, PhD

September 17, 2021

A 3-month lifestyle intervention that used a step counter and regular, personalized text messages to encourage increased mobility and adherence to medications led to a substantial rise in the quality of life in a randomized controlled study with 187 U.S. patients with heart failure and diabetes.

The TARGET-HF-DM study supplied a wrist-worn step counting device to adults with any type of heart failure and any type of diabetes at six U.S. sites and collected data on daily step counts and medication adherence through smartphone-based apps. Researchers randomized the patients to an intervention of thrice-weekly text messages that gave them personalized feedback on their recent activity and adherence and updated activity and adherence goals, or to a control group that only received a once-weekly generic message to wear the step counter.

After 3 months, patients in the intervention arm had an average incremental gain of 313 steps per day from baseline, compared with the controls, a significant difference for the study's primary endpoint, G. Michael Felker, MD, reported at the annual scientific meeting of the Heart Failure Society of America.

Perhaps more importantly, a secondary analysis assessed quality of life with the Kansas City Cardiomyopathy Questionnaire (KCCQ) overall summary score, which showed after 3 months a 5.5-point average increased improvement among patients in the intervention arm, compared with controls. Score increases of 5 of more points on the KCCQ represent clinically meaningful changes.

This average, incremental KCCQ score improvement was "quite large relative to what we typically see in placebo-controlled trials of effective drugs," said Felker, professor of medicine at Duke University, Durham, N.C., and director of cardiovascular research at the Duke Clinical Research Institute. If a similar magnitude change in KCCQ was associated with a drug treatment "we would say it was an incredibly large signal in terms of quality of life, so I think the patients are telling us that [the intervention] is making a clinically important difference."

But Felker cautioned that the study was not blinded, raising the possibility that the change in quality of life could have been partially explained by "patients feeling more engaged about doing something for their health."

His report omitted data on the medication adherence facet of the study, which will come out in a subsequent report, raising the possibility that some of the quality of life benefit as well as the ability of patients to boost their step count was related to more consistent treatment with their prescribed medications, but Felker discounted this possibility.

"The adherence intervention was basically a digital tool that helped people better remember their medication regimen. While it is possible that this could have influenced the KCCQ data this seems quite unlikely to me," he said in an interview.

"Exercise Is the New Magic"

"Exercise is the new magic," commented Mariann R. Piano, PhD, a professor at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn., and cochair of the session where Felker gave his report. "I love that the trial was pragmatic, randomized, and ran at six sites so the generalizability of the findings is really strong." Piano also gave the study high marks for recruiting many African American patients, 47% of the study population, and its assessment of a patient-reported outcome, the KCCQ score.

Patients enrolled in TARGET-HF-DM averaged 59 years of age, about a third were women, and two-thirds had heart failure with a reduced ejection fraction of 40% or less. Eighty percent of participants had New York Heart Association class II functional limitations, and a third also had atrial fibrillation. Their average serum level of the N-terminal of the prohormone brain natriuretic peptide at baseline was 1,309 pg/mL. Most patients were on standard heart failure and diabetes medications, with 88% receiving an ACE inhibitor or angiotensin-receptor blocker (in some cases coupled with sacubitril), 90% were on a beta-blocker, 50% were on a mineralocorticoid receptor antagonist, 54% were on insulin, 47% were on a biguanidine, 25% were on a sulfonylurea, and 7% were on a sodium-glucose cotransporter inhibitor. About half the patients also had an implantable cardioverter defibrillator.

Felker acknowledged that the 313 average increment in steps per day among patients in the intervention group, compared with controls was modest, but it represented about a 10% increase from baseline among patients who in general had a very sedentary life. All patients had received at the start of the study guidelines from the American Heart Association on appropriate types and levels of physical activity for patients with heart failure and diabetes. The researcher previously published a description of the design and rationale of the study.

The study followed patients for an additional 3 months beyond the end of the intervention period, and the excess step count among people in the intervention arm persisted, although the between-group difference was no longer significant. The researchers also analyzed changes during the intervention phase in abnormal fatty acid metabolites among a subgroup of 110 patients and found that these levels tended to decline among those in the intervention group but not among the controls. These metabolites have been associated with disordered metabolism in patient with heart failure, so the observed reduced levels were consistent with the other outcomes. "The signals all went in the direction of reduced metabolic dysregulation," said Felker.

Despite the positive outcomes of the intervention studied, Felker said that this type of approach needs further refinement and study before it's ready for widespread use. "I think TARGET-HF-DM is another piece of the puzzle, but like all small trials it needs replication in larger trials before adoption into practice guidelines," he added.

The study received no commercial funding. Felker has been a consultant to Amgen, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Cytokinetics, Medtronic, Novartis, Reprieve, and Sequana, and he has received research funding from several companies. Piano had no disclosures.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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