We have all seen the story play out before: a patient with heart failure with reduced ejection fraction (HFrEF) who is new to a hospital system is hospitalized for acute decompensated heart failure. A look at their complete metabolic panel shows a Cr of 2.0 mg/dL (with a corresponding eGFR of 35 mL/min/1.73m2), and despite diuresis, the Cr does not really budge. What was initially thought to be an acute kidney injury from possible renal vascular congestion or from renal hypoperfusion turns out to be a more longstanding chronic kidney disease (CKD). Because the medical team has only met the patient for the first time during this hospitalization and they “do not know where the kidney function is going to shake out,” the patient is perhaps started on a beta-blocker but no other guideline-directed medical therapy (GDMT). The patient is discharged from the hospital on only one guideline-recommended agent. Patients like this, with concurrent HFrEF and CKD, can easily get trapped in a vicious cycle in which they are recurrently hospitalized with heart failure exacerbations and varying degrees of kidney injury; their kidney function becomes an impediment to starting the crucial GDMT which will lower their mortality, reduce their likelihood of being hospitalized again, and even improve their quality of life.
This anecdotal experience is supported by data from a new study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (JACC), “Kidney Function and Outcomes in Patients Hospitalized with Heart Failure.” This study utilized the Get With the Guidelines-Heart Failure (GWTG-HF) registry and analyzed over 365,000 hospitalizations with heart failure, including about 157,000 patients hospitalized for heart failure with a reduced ejection fraction (HFrEF, EF ≤40%). Hospitalized patients had kidney function all across the spectrum, ranging from those with a normal estimated glomerular filtration rate (eGFR) of ≥90 mL/min/1.73 m2 (10% of patients) to those on dialysis (5% of patients). As patients’ eGFR decreased (as kidney function worsened), in-hospital mortality rates for heart failure patients increased from about 1% for those with a normal eGFR to 4-5% for those with an eGFR <30 mL/min/1.73m2 or on dialysis.
Among patients with HFrEF, those with lower eGFR or on dialysis were less likely to be discharged on GDMT such as beta-blockers, mineralocorticoid receptor antagonists, angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors/angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs), or angiotensin receptor II blocker-neprolysin inhibitors (ARNI), than those with normal renal function. This pattern was consistent regardless of race/ethnicity and sex. Patients with worse renal function (measured as lower eGFR at time of discharge) were also less likely to have an appointment made after discharge.
These disparities in quality metrics for heart failure patients, particularly those with CKD, are disheartening because 1) many patients with heart failure also have concurrent chronic kidney disease and 2) hospitalized heart failure patients with worse kidney function already experience worse clinical outcomes, such as higher mortality (as shown in this and other studies). Though the use of evidence-based medical therapies is often suboptimal among all patients with HFrEF, patients with comorbid HFrEF and CKD are an especially vulnerable group who would especially benefit from treatment with medications that are proven to improve outcomes. Additionally, though they seem to less frequently have post-discharge outpatient appointments made, these patients would benefit from more (and not less) post-hospital monitoring.
This large contemporary study of patients from a major heart failure registry highlights a gap that we must address among heart failure patients at various stages of kidney disease. More work must be done to prevent or slow the progression of chronic kidney disease in heart failure patients. Finally, special attention should be given to the utilization of guideline-directed medical therapy in this vulnerable population of patients in order to help improve their outcomes, particularly when they are hospitalized for acute decompensated heart failure.
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Andi Shahu is a first-year Cardiology fellow at Yale-New Haven Hospital in New Haven, CT and a recent graduate of the Osler Medical Residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He is interested in the intersection between cardiovascular outcomes, health equity, and health policy. He is a member of the Council On Quality of Care and Outcomes Research (QCOR). He also loves traveling, writing, music and running. You can follow him on Twitter @andishahu.