Since July 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued more than 20 recalls of the angiotensin-receptor blockers (ARBs) valsartan, irbesartan, and losartan because they contained potentially carcinogenic contaminants. As a result, there are now widespread shortages of these blood pressure lowering drugs that have affected many of my patients. Although the FDA's internal analyses and published studies suggest that the excess cancer risk is small even with long-term use, and the FDA has posted a list of currently available ARBs that have been tested and found safe, identifying substitutes has been difficult. Many patients prescribed ARBs already take other first-line anti-hypertensive drugs at maximum doses and/or are unable to tolerate angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors due to cough.
One underutilized alternative is motivating patients with high blood pressure to make therapeutic lifestyle changes. In a Lown Right Care article in the March 15 issue of AFP, Drs. Ann Lindsay, Ajay Sharma, and Alan Glaseroff observed that "physicians ... often go straight to telling patients what to do without listening to what the patient thinks or is willing to do." Evidence suggests that patients are more likely adhere to treatment plans if physicians first get to know the patient's story and health goals, and that five key clinician behaviors are associated with better health outcomes: "(1) emphasizing patient ownership—work on patient goals; (2) partnering with patients on what they are willing and able to do; (3) identifying small steps to ensure success; (4) scheduling frequent follow-up visits to cheer successes or problem solve; and (5) showing care and concern for the patient."
A recent commentary in the Annals of Internal Medicine noted that the 2017 ACC/AHA hypertension guideline barely mentioned the value of lifestyle interventions for persons with hypertension or the barriers to providing them in primary care settings:
Practices that are not structured and staffed to systematically assess patient lifestyle factors, support behavior modification counseling, and provide follow-up will face obstacles to implementation. Clinicians in these practices also must be supported by relevant competencies; professional guidelines; routine feedback; and on-site training in practice change, such as academic detailing and practice facilitation. ... Ensuring that clinicians knowledgeable in behavior change theory and evidence-based lifestyle interventions are part of the primary care team is even more important.
Clinicians and patients may question if exercise programs have the same blood pressure-lowering benefits as medications. The answer appears to be yes. Although no randomized, controlled trials have directly compared exercise against medication, a systematic review and network meta-analysis of 391 trials found that in persons with hypertension, endurance or dynamic resistance exercise was equally effective for lowering systolic blood pressure as ACE inhibitors, ARBs, beta-blockers, and diuretics.
This post first appeared on the AFP Community Blog.