Managing Diabetes: Beyond Hemoglobin A1c

Factors to consider when prescribing or changing diabetes treatment regimen

Person organizing medication

by Vinni Makin, MD

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With a growing number of medications for diabetes—insulin in its various formulations and 11 other classes—hemoglobin A1c targets can now be tailored to fit individual patient profiles. Although helping patients attain their glycemic goals is paramount, other factors should be considered when prescribing or changing a drug treatment regimen, such as cardiovascular risk reduction, weight control, avoidance of hypoglycemia and minimizing out-of-pocket drug costs.

Weight management

Weight loss can help overweight patients reach their hemoglobin A1c target.

Metformin should be continued as other drugs are added because it does not induce weight gain and may help with weight loss of up to 2 kg as shown in the Diabetes Prevention Program Outcomes Study. 1

GLP-1 receptor agonists and SGLT2 inhibitors help with weight loss and are good additions to a basal insulin regimen to minimize weight gain.

Liraglutide was associated with a mean weight loss of 2.3 kg over 36 months of treatment compared with placebo in the LEADER trial. 2

In the Trial to Evaluate Cardiovascular and Other Long-term Outcomes With Semaglutide in Subjects With Type 2 Diabetes (SUSTAIN-6), 3 the mean body weight in the semaglutide group, compared with the placebo group, was 2.9 kg lower in the group receiving a lower dose and 4.3 kg lower in the group receiving a higher dose of the drug.

In a 24-week trial in 182 patients with type 2 diabetes inadequately controlled on metformin, dapagliflozin produced a statistically significant weight reduction of 2.08 kg (95% confidence interval 2.84–1.31; P < .0001) compared with placebo.4

Lifestyle changes aimed at weight management should be emphasized and discussed at every visit.

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Hypoglycemia risk

Hypoglycemia is a major consideration when tailoring hemoglobin A1c targets. In the Action to Control Cardiovascular Risk (ACCORD) trial,5 severe, symptomatic hypoglycemia increased the risk of death in both the intensive and conventional treatment groups. In VADT, the occurrence of a recent severe hypoglycemic event was the strongest independent predictor of death within 90 days. Further analysis showed that even though serious hypoglycemia occurred more often in the intensive therapy group, it was associated with progression of coronary artery calcification in the standard therapy group. 6 Hence, it is imperative that tight glycemic control not be achieved at the cost of severe or recurrent hypoglycemia.

In terms of hypoglycemia, metformin is an excellent medication. The American Diabetes Association7 recommends metformin as the first-line therapy for newly diagnosed diabetes. Long-term follow-up data from UKPDS showed that metformin decreased mortality and the incidence of myocardial infarction and lowered treatment costs as well as the overall risk of hypoglycemia. 8 When prescribed, it should be titrated to the highest dose.

The FDA9 has changed the prescribing information for metformin in patients with renal impairment. Metformin should not be started if the eGFR is less than 45 mL/min/1.73 m2, but it can be continued if the patient is already receiving it and the eGFR is between 30 and 45. Previously, creatinine levels were used to define renal impairment and suitability for metformin. This change has increased the number of patients who can benefit from this medication.

In patients who have a contraindication to metformin, DPP-4 inhibitors can be considered, as they carry a low risk of hypoglycemia as well. Sulfonylureas should be used with caution in these patients, especially if their oral intake is variable. When sulfonylureas were compared to the DPP-4 inhibitor sitagliptin as an add-on to metformin, the rate of hypoglycemia was 32% in the sulfonylurea group vs 5% in the sitagliptin group. 10

Of the sulfonylureas, glipizide and glimepiride are better than glyburide because of a comparatively lower risk of hypoglycemia and a higher selectivity for binding the KATP channel on the pancreatic beta cell. 11

Meglitinides can be a good option for patients who skip meals, but they are more expensive than other generic oral hypoglycemic agents and require multiple daily dosing.

GLP-1 analogues also have a low risk of hypoglycemia but are only available in injectable formulations. Patients must be willing and able to perform the injections themselves.12

Looser targets for older patients

In 2010, among US residents age 65 and older, 10.9 million (about 27%) had diabetes, 13 and this number is projected to increase to 26.7 million by 2050. 14 This population is prone to hypoglycemia when treated with insulin and sulfonylureas. An injury sustained by a fall induced by hypoglycemia can be life-altering. In addition, no randomized clinical trials show the effect of tight glycemic control on complications in older patients with diabetes because patients older than 80 are often excluded.

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A reasonable goal suggested by the European Diabetes Working Party for Older People 201115 and reiterated by the American Geriatrics Society in 201316 is a hemoglobin A1c between 7% and 7.5% for relatively healthy older patients and 7.5% to 8% or 8.5% in frail elderly patients with diabetes.

Consider prescribing medications that carry a low risk of hypoglycemia, can be dose-adjusted for kidney function, and do not rely on manual dexterity for administration (ie, do not require patients to give themselves injections). These include metformin and DPP-4 inhibitors.

Drug combinations

Polypharmacy is a concern for all patients with diabetes, especially since it increases the risk of drug interactions and adverse effects, increases out-of-pocket costs, and decreases the likelihood that patients will remain adherent to their treatment regimen. The use of combination medications can reduce the number of pills or injections required, as well as copayments.

Due to concern for multiple drug-drug interactions (and also due to the progressive nature of diabetes), many people with type 2 diabetes are given insulin in lieu of pills to lower their blood glucose. In addition to premixed insulin combinations (such as combinations of neutral protamine Hagedorn and regular insulin or combinations of insulin analogues), long-acting basal insulins can now be prescribed with a GLP-1 drug in fixed-dose combinations such as insulin glargine plus lixisenatide and insulin degludec plus liraglutide.

Cost considerations

It is important to discuss medication cost with patients, because many newer diabetic drugs are expensive and add to the financial burden of patients already paying for multiple medications, such as antihypertensives and statins.

Metformin and sulfonylureas are less expensive alternatives for patients who cannot afford GLP-1 analogues or SGLT2 inhibitors. Even within the same drug class, the formulary-preferred drug may be cheaper than the nonformulary alternative. Thus, it is helpful to research formulary alternatives before discussing treatment regimens with patients.


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Note: This is an abridged version of an article originally published in the Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine.