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Management of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) involves short-term objectives, such as symptom relief, and long-term goals focusing on improving and maintaining health status and preventing exacerbations, comorbidities and mortality [1, 2]. Frequent exacerbations of COPD accelerate lung function decline , increase morbidity and mortality [4, 5] and account for a substantial proportion of the healthcare costs [6, 7]. It is well established that exacerbations occur at any stage of COPD, but are gradually more frequent and more severe as the disease progresses [3, 8-10].
Inhaled corticosteroids (ICSs) in fixed combination with long-acting β2-agonists (LABAs) reduce exacerbations [11-13] and are therefore recommended for prevention of COPD exacerbations . Two products combining an ICS and an LABA are available in Sweden, budesonide/formoterol (Symbicort® Turbuhaler®) and fluticasone/salmeterol (Seretide® Diskus®). Both of these combinations reduce the exacerbation rate in COPD and are more effective in this respect than the respective individual components alone [11, 12, 14, 15]. However, no randomized controlled trials have been conducted to compare the effects of different fixed combinations of ICSs and LABAs.
Depending on the chosen outcome variables, controlled COPD trials are often designed using exclusion criteria that may limit their ability to reflect real-world effectiveness, in particular in patients with concomitant conditions such as heart disease, sarcopenia and osteoporosis. Controlled trials also generally include assessments and contact with healthcare professionals beyond usual clinical care, which may predispose patient selection to a more compliant phenotype and alter patient behaviour compared with the real-life clinical situation. In addition, predefined study periods are seldom well suited to accurately assessing the long-term effectiveness of chronic disease treatment due to high and differential withdrawal rates, particularly if placebo-treated control arms are included [16, 17]. Thus, because of limited possibilities for physicians to alter therapy during controlled trials focusing on COPD exacerbations, withdrawal rates frequently exceed 30% within the first year of the trial [11-15].
Comparative effectiveness data from observational databases of propensity score-matched cohorts provide an alternative means to balance study groups to minimize bias when randomization is not possible and can provide complementary data to overcome some of the limitations of controlled trials. However, information from observational studies of fixed ICS/LABA combination regimens delivered via dry powder inhalers in COPD is limited. In a recent observational, matched-cohort study, in which exacerbations requiring use of antibiotics were not reported, a lower rate of exacerbations requiring hospitalization and emergency treatment were observed in COPD patients treated with budesonide/formoterol than in those treated with fluticasone/salmeterol .
The aim of this propensity score-matched, population-based, retrospective, observational cohort study in 5468 patients with up to 11 years of follow-up in general practice in Sweden was to compare the effects of two different fixed ICS/LABA combinations on COPD exacerbations. Healthcare utilization associated with fixed ICS/LABA combinations of either budesonide/formoterol Turbuhaler® or fluticasone/salmeterol Diskus® in COPD was investigated.
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A total of 21 361 patients who met the inclusion criteria of a recorded COPD diagnosis were identified within the study period. Of these patients, 9893 (53% female, mean age 67 years) had a record of fixed ICS/LABA combination therapy following COPD diagnosis and were eligible for matching: 7155 patients treated with budesonide/formoterol and 2738 patients with fluticasone/salmeterol at the index date, that is, the start of ICS/LABA treatment (Table 1). The scores for estimated probability of treatment between the budesonide/formoterol and fluticasone/salmeterol populations showed overlapping distributions, indicating well-balanced cohorts prior to propensity score matching (Fig. 1); however, there were some between-group differences (Table 1). Pairwise matching (1 : 1) resulted in two cohorts of 2734 patients each, with similar characteristics. All but four patients with fluticasone/salmeterol prescriptions at the index date could be matched into pairs with equivalent budesonide/formoterol patients. After matching, no important differences were observed with respect to demographic characteristics, baseline measures, comorbidities or COPD-related variables (Table 1).
Table 1. Baseline characteristics in the 2 years before a first ICS/LABA prescription after a physician-based COPD diagnosis (index date), by treatment. Unmatched and pairwise (1 : 1) propensity score-matched populations of budesonide/formoterol- and fluticasone/salmeterol-treated patients are shown
|Fluticasone/salmeterol (n = 2738)||Budesonide/formoterol (n = 7155)||P-value||Fluticasone/salmeterol (n = 2734)||Budesonide/formoterol (n = 2734)||P-value|
|Age at diagnosis, mean (SD) yearsa||67.6 (10.4)||66.7 (10.8)||0.0002||67.6 (10.4)||67.6 (10.9)||0.8639|
|Female gender, n (%)b||1459 (53)||3815 (53)||0.9770||1456 (53)||1446 (53)||0.7864|
|Exacerbation, n (%)b||2105 (77)||5584 (78)||0.2139||2101 (77)||2106 (77)||0.8725|
|Hospitalization for COPD,% patients; mean (SD) yearly ratea||24; 0.099 (0.6)||21; 0.077 (0.6)||<0.0001||24; 0.099 (0.6)||23; 0.109 (0.6)||0.5879|
|Emergency department visits% patients; mean (SD) yearly ratea||6.9; 0.012 (0.08)||7.0; 0.017 (0.2)||0.1171||7.0; 0.012 (0.08)||7.7; 0.024 (0.3)||0.0825|
|Oral steroids% patients; mean (SD); yearly ratea||54; 1.99 (3.19)||55; 2.01 (3.28)||0.8582||54; 1.97 (3.10)||56; 1.98 (3.08)||0.9340|
|Antibiotics% patients; mean (SD); yearly ratea||61; 1.57 (1.94)||64; 1.59 (1.89)||0.7423||61; 1.57 (1.94)||61; 1.55 (1.71)||0.6882|
|SABA% patients; mean (SD) yearly ratea||60; 2.81 (4.00)||56; 3.24 (4.66)||0.0005||60; 2.81 (4.01)||59; 2.85 (4.16)||0.7917|
|LABA% patients; mean (SD) yearly ratea||27; 1.90 (4.39)||27; 2.61 (3.91)||0.0001||27; 1.90 (4.39)||28; 2.24 (3.53)||0.1050|
|LAMA% patients; mean (SD) yearly ratea||64; 2.73 (3.53)||63; 3.36 (4.35)||<0.0001||64; 2.73 (3.53)||62; 2.93 (3.91)||0.1107|
|Inhaled steroids% patients; mean (SD) yearly ratea||40; 2.33 (2.69)||43; 2.87 (3.24)||<0.0001||40; 2.32 (2.69)||43; 2.25 (2.49)||0.5083|
|Days from COPD diagnosis to index date, mean (SD)a||756 (965)||800 (993)||0.0484||756 (965)||786 (970)||0.2697|
|Osteoporosis, n (%)b||184 (7)||373 (5)||0.0036||182 (7)||202 (7)||0.2899|
|Diabetes, n (%)b||288 (11)||967 (14)||<0.0001||288 (11)||283 (10)||0.8250|
|Cancer, n (%)b||323 (12)||1023 (14)||0.0012||322 (12)||322 (12)||1.0000|
|Asthma, n (%)b||1053 (39)||2300 (32)||<0.0001||1052 (39)||1069 (39)||0.6371|
|Depression, n (%)b||315 (12)||977 (14)||0.0045||314 (12)||323 (12)||0.7044|
|Anxiety, n (%)b||200 (7)||557 (8)||0.4215||200 (7)||205 (8)||0.7963|
|Smokersc, n (%)b||341 (48)||1337 (53)||0.0315||341 (48)||397 (49)||0.6738|
Figure 1. Estimated probability of treatment of the two unmatched populations of patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease treated with fluticasone/salmeterol (n = 2738) or budesonide/formoterol (n = 7155). A high probability indicates milder disease.
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The mean collected budesonide dose during the study period was 568 ± 235 μg day−1 for matched patients who were prescribed budesonide/formoterol and the mean fluticasone dose was 783 ± 338 μg day−1 for patients who were prescribed fluticasone/salmeterol. The study comprised 19 170 patient-years. The follow-up time was 3.5 ± 2.4 years (mean ± standard deviation): 3.2 ± 2.3 years for budesonide/formoterol and 3.8 ± 2.6 years for fluticasone/salmeterol.
Following matching, the postindex exacerbation rates were 0.80 and 1.09 per patient-year in the budesonide/formoterol and fluticasone/salmeterol treatment groups, respectively, corresponding to a 26.6% lower exacerbation rate [rate ratio 0.74, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.69–0.79; P < 0.0001] in the budesonide/formoterol group (Table 2). This corresponded to a number needed to treat with budesonide/formoterol versus fluticasone/salmeterol to prevent one exacerbation per patient-year equal to 3.4. Patients with less than one exacerbation per year more often used budesonide/formoterol than fluticasone/salmeterol, whereas those with one or more exacerbation per year were more likely to use fluticasone/salmeterol (Fig. 2). Further, there were 7% more fluticasone/salmeterol users among patients with at least two exacerbations per year (Fig. 2). There was some evidence from subpopulation analyses that the magnitude of the treatment difference increased with study duration, with the difference in exacerbation rates in favour of budesonide/formoterol in the first 1–3 years being less than during the full study period (Table 3). The significant reduction in favour of budesonide/formoterol also remained irrespective of age, gender, whether or not patients had an asthma diagnosis in the pre-index period, prior to exacerbation medication or prescription for a long-acting bronchodilator. The difference in overall exacerbation rate between the two groups ranged from 18% to 31% (Table 3). Sensitivity analyses demonstrated a difference in the overall exacerbation rate between the two groups ranging from 25% to 31%. The crude rate difference (without propensity score matching) was 34% (P < 0.0001).
Table 2. Yearly occurrence of events among pairwise (1 : 1) propensity score-matched populations of COPD patients treated with budesonide/formoterol versus fluticasone/salmeterol
|Variable||Fluticasone/salmeterol (n = 2734)||Budesonide/formoterol (n = 2734)||Treatment contrasta||P-value|
|Events, per patient-year||Mean (95% CI)||Mean (95% CI)||Rate ratio (95% CI)|
|All exacerbations||1.09 (1.05–1.14)||0.80 (0.77–0.84)||0.74 (0.69–0.79)||<0.0001|
|COPD hospitalizations||0.21 (0.20–0.23)||0.15 (0.142–0.163)||0.71 (0.65–0.78)||<0.0001|
|COPD-related hospital stay, days||0.95 (0.88–1.02)||0.63 (0.58–0.67)||0.66 (0.62–0.71)||<0.0001|
|Emergency visits||0.034 (0.031–0.037)||0.027 (0.025–0.030)||0.79 (0.71–0.89)||0.0003|
|Oral steroid use||0.85 (0.81–0.90)||0.63 (0.60–0.67)||0.74 (0.68–0.81)||<0.0001|
|Antibiotic use||0.54 (0.52–0.57)||0.38 (0.37–0.40)||0.70 (0.66–0.75)||<0.0001|
Table 3. COPD exacerbation rates in subpopulations of pairwise (1 : 1) propensity score-matched patients treated with budesonide/formoterol versus fluticasone/salmeterol
|Subpopulation||Patients, n||Yearly rate fluticasone/salmeterol||Yearly rate budesonide/formoterol||Treatment contrasta Rate ratio (95% CI)|
|Patients with asthma diagnosis||2 × 1060||1.26||0.96||0.76 (0.69–0.83)|
|Patients without asthma diagnosis||2 × 1674||0.95||0.69||0.72 (0.67–0.79)|
|Age ≤60 years||2 × 600||0.93||0.70||0.75 (0.66–0.85)|
|Age >60 years||2 × 2134||1.16||0.80||0.69 (0.65–0.75)|
|1 year after index date||2 × 2734||1.29||1.06||0.82 (0.75–0.88)|
|2 years after index date||2 × 2734||1.19||0.94||0.79 (0.74–0.85)|
|3 years after index date||2 × 2734||1.15||0.90||0.78 (0.73–0.83)|
|Females||2 × 1451||1.07||0.76||0.71 (0.65–0.77)|
|Males||2 × 1283||1.15||0.83||0.73 (0.66–0.79)|
|Patients with oral steroid/antibiotic use before index date||2 × 1914||1.28||0.95||0.74 (0.70–0.80)|
|Patients without oral steroid/antibiotic use before index date||2 × 820||0.67||0.47||0.70 (0.62–0.79)|
|Patients with long-acting bronchodilator use before index date||2 × 1930||1.18||0.84||0.72 (0.67–0.77)|
|Patients without long-acting bronchodilator use before index date||2 × 804||0.86||0.70||0.81 (0.72–0.92)|
|Patients with index date after 1 June 2003b||2 × 2145||1.13||0.82||0.72 (0.67–0.77)|
Figure 2. Number of exacerbations per patient per year for patients treated with budesonide/formoterol and fluticasone/salmeterol during the study period.
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In budesonide/formoterol-treated patients, the yearly rate of COPD-related hospitalizations was 0.15 compared with 0.21 in patients treated with fluticasone/salmeterol (P < 0.0001), corresponding to a difference of 29.1% between the two groups (rate ratio 0.71, 95% CI 0.65–0.78; P < 0.0001; Table 2). Thus, the number needed to treat to prevent one COPD-related hospitalization per patient-year was 16.0 with budesonide/formoterol versus fluticasone/salmeterol.
In total, 27.0% fewer days were spent in hospital due to exacerbations of COPD in the group treated with budesonide/formoterol (0.63 days year−1) compared with the fluticasone/salmeterol-treated group (0.95 days year−1; rate ratio 0.66, 95% CI 0.62–0.71; P < 0.0001; Table 2). In addition, there were 21.0% fewer emergency visits in the budesonide/formoterol treatment group (0.027 events per patient-year) compared with those treated with fluticasone/salmeterol (0.034 events/patient-year; rate ratio 0.79, 95% CI 0.71–0.89; P = 0.0003; Table 2).
Budesonide/formoterol-treated patients had 26.0% fewer courses of oral steroids (0.63 vs. 0.85 events per year; rate ratio 0.74, 95% CI 0.68–0.81; P < 0.0001) and 29.0% fewer antibiotic courses (0.38 vs. 0.54 events per year; rate ratio 0.70, 95% CI 0.66–0.75; P < 0.0001) than patients treated with fluticasone/salmeterol (Table 2).
Among patients who were treated with fluticasone/salmeterol at the index date, 13.8% switched to budesonide/formoterol during the study period; among those who were treated with budesonide/formoterol at the index date, 2.8% switched to fluticasone/salmeterol during the study. Patients who switched treatment had higher yearly exacerbation rates than those who did not switch (data not shown).
The number of patients who required tiotropium in addition to the ICS/LABA combination was 16.0% lower for the budesonide/formoterol group (rate ratio 0.84, 95% CI 0.79–0.89; P < 0.0001 vs. fluticasone/salmeterol). There were also fewer ipratropium and β-agonist prescription events in the budesonide/formoterol treatment group than in those treated with fluticasone/salmeterol (Table 3). There was a higher rate of formoterol prescription in the budesonide/formoterol group (P < 0.0001) and of salmeterol prescription in the fluticasone/salmeterol group (P < 0.0001; Table 4).
Table 4. Yearly rates of collection of inhalation drugs in pairwise (1 : 1) propensity score-matched populations of COPD patients treated with budesonide/formoterol versus fluticasone/salmeterol
|Drug type||Fluticasone/salmeterol (n = 2734)||Budesonide/formoterol (n = 2734)||Treatment contrasta||P-value|
|Events, per patient-year||Mean (95% CI)||Mean (95% CI)||Rate ratio (95% CI)|
|Tiotropium bromide||1.06 (1.01–1.11)||0.89 (0.85–0.93)||0.84 (0.79–0.89)||<0.0001|
|Short-acting beta-agonists||1.22 (1.16–1.28)||0.95 (0.91–1.00)||0.78 (0.72–0.84)||<0.0001|
|Ipratropium bromide||0.46 (0.43–0.49)||0.39 (0.36–0.41)||0.84 (0.77–0.92)||0.0003|
|Formoterol||0.076 (0.069–0.084)||0.12 (0.108–0.124)||1.52 (1.35–1.69)||<0.0001|
|Salmeterol||0.019 (0.017–0.020)||0.007 (0.006–0.008)||0.37 (0.31–0.43)||<0.0001|
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In the present observational, matched-cohort, register-linkage study of COPD patients with a follow-up period of up to 11 years, comprising more than 19 000 patient-years, we showed that patients treated with budesonide/formoterol Turbuhaler® were significantly less likely to experience a COPD-related exacerbation than those treated with fluticasone/salmeterol Diskus®. Furthermore, the numbers needed to treat with budesonide/formoterol versus fluticasone/salmeterol to avoid one COPD-related exacerbation and one hospital admission were less than 4 and 16 patients per year, respectively.
In a previous population-based, retrospective, matched-cohort, 1-year study conducted in Canada by Blais and co-workers, there were 15% fewer COPD exacerbations requiring use of oral steroids with budesonide/formoterol compared with fluticasone/salmeterol; however, this difference failed to reach statistical significance . In our larger study, we found that 18% fewer exacerbations occurred in the first year with budesonide/formoterol compared with fluticasone/salmeterol; this difference in exacerbation rates between the two ICS/LABA groups in the first year was statistically significant, and subsequently, the difference increased with study duration. In line with the current findings, healthcare utilization in the Canadian study with regard to acute visits to the emergency department, hospitalizations and additional tiotropium use due to COPD were all significantly lower in patients treated with budesonide/formoterol than those treated with fluticasone/salmeterol . The Canadian study was based on 2262 treatment-years, whereas the current analysis was based on 19 170 treatment-years. The long observation time, the high number of patient-years and the inclusion of treatment with antibiotics in the definition of exacerbations in the present study constitute a strong basis for our finding of statistically significant differences for all outcome variables in favour of the combination of budesonide/formoterol compared with fluticasone/salmeterol. We demonstrated 29% fewer exacerbations, defined by the use of antibiotics, in the budesonide/formoterol group compared with the fluticasone/salmeterol group; however, antibiotic use was not assessed in the smaller Canadian trial.
The results of both the present observational, matched-cohort study and that of Blais and co-workers  suggest differences in exacerbation outcomes, as well as a need for adjuvant tiotropium prescriptions, in the matched cohorts despite the fact that the most common prescription for fixed-combination therapy was not the same in the two countries (Sweden and Canada, respectively). In previous studies, for up to 1 year, both budesonide/formoterol and fluticasone/salmeterol decreased the rate of COPD exacerbations when compared with placebo, and the magnitude of reduction was similar for the two ICS/LABA combination products [11, 12, 14, 15]. However, to our knowledge, no direct, long-term comparisons of the efficacy of these regimens in COPD have been made in a randomized, double-blind, double-dummy trial setting. Budesonide/formoterol has a faster onset of action (bronchodilatation) than fluticasone/salmeterol , implying a more rapid onset of relief of acute symptoms [25, 26]. Whether this influences patient adherence to either regimen in the long term is unclear. In previous real-world COPD studies with a duration of 6–12 months [18, 27], adherence rates to the two fixed ICS/LABA combinations were similar, suggesting that the observed difference in effectiveness between budesonide/formoterol and fluticasone/salmeterol reported here and by Blais et al. is most likely to be related to the pharmacological properties of the combinations rather than differences in patient adherence. The 16–22% lower use of concomitant COPD medications in the budesonide/formoterol group and the lower rate of switching from budesonide/formoterol to fluticasone/salmeterol than vice versa indicate that patients and treating physicians generally perceive COPD control to be better during treatment with budesonide/formoterol than with fluticasone/salmeterol.
Differences between ICSs with regard to pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic properties, such as oral bioavailability and clearance, volume of distribution and speed of airway uptake, may have implications for real-life clinical effectiveness [28-31]. In contrast to the sterile airways of normal lungs, bacterial colonization of the lower airways with a spectrum of pathogens is observed in a significant proportion of patients with stable COPD [32, 33]. This colonization may be an important pro-inflammatory airway stimulus influencing exacerbation frequency. Fluticasone is a more potent immunosuppressant as well as a more lipophilic glucocorticosteroid than is budesonide, which means that it is more likely to be retained in the mucosa and epithelial lining fluid for longer periods than budesonide; it has been proposed that these factors may contribute to prolonged suppression of local immunity and thereby facilitate the occurrence of a difference in exacerbations [28-31, 34]. This hypothesis may be supported by the finding of a 29% lower prevalence of exacerbations requiring antibiotic treatment in the budesonide/formoterol-treated cohort than in patients treated with fluticasone/salmeterol.
A subgroup of patients in this real-life study had a concomitant diagnosis of asthma and COPD after the index date. Sensitivity analyses showed similar results in favour of budesonide/formoterol in this subgroup, confirming that our findings were not explained by inclusion of patients with this comorbidity. Crude population comparisons revealed results similar to those in the matched samples, indicating that the overall results were not affected by loss of information created by the budesonide/formoterol-treated patients who were not included in the matching.
As with all retrospective, observational registry studies, the present study may have limitations. Data retrieval is limited to the variables recorded in the databases. Although the included patients have been matched pairwise with respect to a number of variables, there may still be potential unknown confounding factors. The validity and completeness of the data regarding COPD diagnoses (e.g. lung function measurements and disease history) and the accuracy and severity of the physician diagnoses of COPD could not be fully verified by spirometry in all cases. Medication use is based on prescription claims, which do not fully reflect how patients actually use medications. Nevertheless, as the study is based on a large sample (almost 5500 individuals), it is not likely that potential confounding factors would differ between the cohorts. Nonpharmaceutical COPD therapy data (e.g. smoking cessation and exercise) were not complete and could not be included in the analyses. As the cohort mainly comprised patients of Scandinavian origin, the findings may not be generalizable to non-Caucasians. Notwithstanding its limitations, this study also has several important strengths, not least the primary care setting used to initially identify the COPD patients and the lack of restrictions with regard to, for example, age, employment status, concomitant medication use, comorbidities or healthcare insurance. The nonbiased data extraction from electronic primary healthcare data linked with mandatory national healthcare registers with high coverage and quality, together with the opportunity to follow individual patients through their treatment journey by use of the personal identification number, provides robust and unique data.
The generalizability of our findings to the treatment of COPD in general practice is therefore greater than in controlled trials. All patients were matched with respect to a large number of recognized COPD parameters and other markers. Sensitivity analyses demonstrated the strength of the outcomes across COPD severity with or without concomitant asthma diagnoses. Finally, the duration of follow-up and number of patient-years were substantial for both medications studied, without the potential for increased and differential drop-out rates in one vs. the other therapy, which can often confound the results in longer-term studies.
In summary, we found that long-term budesonide/formoterol treatment was associated with fewer moderate and severe exacerbations than long-term treatment with fluticasone/salmeterol. The findings were robust irrespective of the exacerbation definition used and were not affected by several sensitivity analyses. Considering that, to our knowledge, no long-term controlled trials comparing the two ICS/LABA combinations in COPD have been conducted, and the fact that the numbers needed to treat to avoid one COPD exacerbation per year with one ICS/LABA regimen versus another were clinically meaningful, these real-world findings warrant further investigation.
Conflict of interest statement
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- Conflict of interest statement
AstraZeneca funded this study and was a member of the study steering committee that carried overall responsibility for the concept and design. Kjell Larsson has, during the last 5 years, on one or more occasion served on an advisory board and/or served as a speaker and/or participated in education arranged by AstraZeneca, Boehringer Ingelheim, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Meda, Merck Sharp & Dohme (MSD), Nycomed, Novartis, Takeda and Pfizer. Kjell Larsson has also received unrestricted research grants from AstraZeneca, Boehringer Ingelheim, and GSK. Christer Janson has received honoraria for educational activities from AstraZeneca, GSK and MSD. Karin Lisspers has received speaking fees from AstraZeneca, Boehringer Ingelheim and MSD. Björn Ställberg has received honoraria for educational activities from AstraZeneca, GSK and MSD. Christer Janson, Karin Lisspers, Björn Ställberg, and Gunnar Johansson have served in, and/or received honoraria for, advisory board meetings arranged by AstraZeneca. Georgios Stratelis, Gunilla Telg and Leif Jörgensen are full-time employees of AstraZeneca Nordic.