Computerized advice on drug dosage to improve prescribing practice

Background

Physicians and other healthcare professionals often prescribe drugs that will only work at certain concentrations. These drugs are said to have a narrow therapeutic window. This means that if the concentration of the drug is too high or too low, they may cause serious side effects or not provide the benefits they should. For example, blood thinners (anticoagulants) are prescribed to thin the blood to prevent clots. If the concentration is too high, people may experience excessive bleeding and even death. In contrast, if the concentration is too low, a clot could form and cause a stroke. For these types of drugs, it is important that the correct amount of the drug be prescribed.

Calculating and prescribing the correct amount can be complicated and time-consuming for healthcare professionals. Sometimes determining the correct dose can take a long time since healthcare professionals may not want to prescribe high doses of the drugs initially because they make mistakes in calculations. Several computer systems have been designed to do these calculations and assist healthcare professionals in prescribing these types of drugs.

Study characteristics

We sought clinical trial evidence from scientific databases to evaluate the effectiveness of these computer systems. The evidence is current to January 2012. We found data from 42 trials (40 randomized controlled trials (trials that allocate people at random to receive one of a number of drugs or procedures) and two non-randomized controlled trials).

Key results

Computerized advice for drug dosage can benefit people taking certain drugs compared with empiric dosing (where a dose is chosen based on a doctor's observations and experience) without computer assistance. When using the computer system, healthcare professionals prescribed appropriately higher doses of the drugs initially for aminoglycoside antibiotics and the correct drug dose was reached more quickly for oral anticoagulants. It significantly decreased thromboembolism (blood clotting) events for anticoagulants and tended to reduce unwanted effects for aminoglycoside antibiotics and anti-rejection drugs (although not an important difference). It tended to reduce the length of hospital stay compared with routine care with comparable or better cost-effectiveness. There was no evidence of effects on death or clinical side events for insulin (low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia)), anaesthetic agents, anti-rejection drugs (drugs taken to prevent rejection of a transplanted organ) and antidepressants.

Quality of evidence

The quality of the studies was low so these results must be interpreted with caution.

Authors' conclusions: 

This review update suggests that computerized advice for drug dosage has some benefits: it increases the serum concentrations for aminoglycoside antibiotics and improves the proportion of people for which the plasma drug is within the therapeutic range for aminoglycoside antibiotics.

It leads to a physiological parameter more often within the desired range for oral anticoagulants and insulin. It decreases the time to achieve stabilization for oral anticoagulants. It tends to decrease unwanted effects for aminoglycoside antibiotics and anti-rejection drugs, and it significantly decreases thromboembolism events for anticoagulants. It tends to reduce the length of hospital stay compared with routine care while comparable or better cost-effectiveness ratios were achieved.

However, there was no evidence that decision support had an effect on mortality or other clinical adverse events for insulin (hypoglycaemia), anaesthetic agents, anti-rejection drugs and antidepressants. In addition, there was no evidence to suggest that some decision support technical features (such as its integration into a computer physician order entry system) or aspects of organization of care (such as the setting) could optimize the effect of computerized advice.

Taking into account the high risk of bias of, and high heterogeneity between, studies, these results must be interpreted with caution.

Read the full abstract...
Background: 

Maintaining therapeutic concentrations of drugs with a narrow therapeutic window is a complex task. Several computer systems have been designed to help doctors determine optimum drug dosage. Significant improvements in health care could be achieved if computer advice improved health outcomes and could be implemented in routine practice in a cost-effective fashion. This is an updated version of an earlier Cochrane systematic review, first published in 2001 and updated in 2008.

Objectives: 

To assess whether computerized advice on drug dosage has beneficial effects on patient outcomes compared with routine care (empiric dosing without computer assistance).

Search strategy: 

The following databases were searched from 1996 to January 2012: EPOC Group Specialized Register, Reference Manager; Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), MEDLINE, Ovid; EMBASE, Ovid; and CINAHL, EbscoHost. A "top up" search was conducted for the period January 2012 to January 2013; these results were screened by the authors and potentially relevant studies are listed in Studies Awaiting Classification. The review authors also searched reference lists of relevant studies and related reviews.

Selection criteria: 

We included randomized controlled trials, non-randomized controlled trials, controlled before-and-after studies and interrupted time series analyses of computerized advice on drug dosage. The participants were healthcare professionals responsible for patient care. The outcomes were any objectively measured change in the health of patients resulting from computerized advice (such as therapeutic drug control, clinical improvement, adverse reactions).

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently extracted data and assessed study quality. We grouped the results from the included studies by drug used and the effect aimed at for aminoglycoside antibiotics, amitriptyline, anaesthetics, insulin, anticoagulants, ovarian stimulation, anti-rejection drugs and theophylline. We combined the effect sizes to give an overall effect for each subgroup of studies, using a random-effects model. We further grouped studies by type of outcome when appropriate (i.e. no evidence of heterogeneity).

Main results: 

Forty-six comparisons (from 42 trials) were included (as compared with 26 comparisons in the last update) including a wide range of drugs in inpatient and outpatient settings. All were randomized controlled trials except two studies. Interventions usually targeted doctors, although some studies attempted to influence prescriptions by pharmacists and nurses. Drugs evaluated were anticoagulants, insulin, aminoglycoside antibiotics, theophylline, anti-rejection drugs, anaesthetic agents, antidepressants and gonadotropins. Although all studies used reliable outcome measures, their quality was generally low.

This update found similar results to the previous update and managed to identify specific therapeutic areas where the computerized advice on drug dosage was beneficial compared with routine care:

1. it increased target peak serum concentrations (standardized mean difference (SMD) 0.79, 95% CI 0.46 to 1.13) and the proportion of people with plasma drug concentrations within the therapeutic range after two days (pooled risk ratio (RR) 4.44, 95% CI 1.94 to 10.13) for aminoglycoside antibiotics;

2. it led to a physiological parameter more often within the desired range for oral anticoagulants (SMD for percentage of time spent in target international normalized ratio +0.19, 95% CI 0.06 to 0.33) and insulin (SMD for percentage of time in target glucose range: +1.27, 95% CI 0.56 to 1.98);

3. it decreased the time to achieve stabilization for oral anticoagulants (SMD -0.56, 95% CI -1.07 to -0.04);

4. it decreased the thromboembolism events (rate ratio 0.68, 95% CI 0.49 to 0.94) and tended to decrease bleeding events for anticoagulants although the difference was not significant (rate ratio 0.81, 95% CI 0.60 to 1.08). It tended to decrease unwanted effects for aminoglycoside antibiotics (nephrotoxicity: RR 0.67, 95% CI 0.42 to 1.06) and anti-rejection drugs (cytomegalovirus infections: RR 0.90, 95% CI 0.58 to 1.40);

5. it tended to reduce the length of time spent in the hospital although the difference was not significant (SMD -0.15, 95% CI -0.33 to 0.02) and to achieve comparable or better cost-effectiveness ratios than usual care;

6. there was no evidence of differences in mortality or other clinical adverse events for insulin (hypoglycaemia), anaesthetic agents, anti-rejection drugs and antidepressants.

For all outcomes, statistical heterogeneity quantified by I2 statistics was moderate to high.

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