Management of Crohn’s Disease. The shiny medical sports car or the worn out surgical banger?
14 July 2020
Professor Steven R Brown, Sheffield Teaching Hospitals.
Based on the BJS Lecture at ACPGBI 2020
A success story
There is more and more convincing evidence that the number of patients undergoing surgery for Crohn’s disease is decreasing substantially (1,2). Of course this as a huge success story and testament to tremendous advances in medical therapy occurring particularly over the last 20-30 years, isn’t it? Not necessarily. Some would suggest the newer medications have made little to no difference in reducing the need for surgery (3,4). Other factors may be more pertinent. To give gastroenterologists credit, earlier recognition of disease and potential complications and better disease monitoring are likely to have played a role. On the other hand it may be nothing to do with medical care and there is a simple epidemiological explanation; for instance there are less smokers now than there was 30 years ago (5).
Or is it?
There is another more concerning explanation. The plethora of medical options for patients with Crohn’s disease continues to expand. As a simple surgeon it is difficult to keep up with the various biosimilars, protein kinase, IL , CAM and JAK3 inhibitors that are available or being developed. It is like a candy shop of choice for the physician and a huge temptation for the patient to at least try one or more of these cutting edge medical therapies. Give medical treatment ‘just one more go’ is an obvious impulsion. But the medical literature is consistent in suggesting over 70% of patients with Crohn’s Disease eventually come to surgery (6). This can only mean that an increasing proportion of those undergoing surgery have experienced protracted medical therapy and are likely to have more complex disease. Although difficult to confirm this is certainly the perception of many in the surgical community (7-9).
Naturally all clinicians strive for the ultimate goal of never requiring surgery for Crohn’s Disease, but we are not there yet. Indeed some argue that the trend for less surgery should be reversed and surgery offered for more patients much earlier in their treatment pathway.
Buying a car
I like to think that the choice of surgery or medical therapy is analogous to buying a car. When making such a decision there are various factors that should be considered. These include safety, comfort, reliability, cost and perhaps most important of all what your partner thinks. The car may seem perfect in terms of all of these factors but he/she does not like the salesman, the brand or the colour.
So when it comes to the choice of the medical or surgical ‘car’ option, safety is in some respects paramount. There is a justifiable fear of surgery and a dread by many for the need for a stoma. However, optimisation of the patient, use of minimally invasive techniques, minimal resection and enhanced recovery mean that many of these fears are unfounded in the majority of patients (10). Indeed there are not insignificant risks associated with the alternative long-term immunosuppression.
Car comfort translates to quality of life. We know from the LIRIC study that quality of life is pretty much equivalent when it comes to medical or surgical options (11). No obvious winner here. However, when it comes to reliability or the chance of needing surgery there is an outright winner. As mentioned earlier the universally consistent literature suggests a greater that 70% chance of Crohn’s patients eventually needing surgery despite enhanced medical therapy (6). The ‘shiny medical sports car’ is very likely to break down. Compare with the ‘banger’ that is the surgical car. This just keeps going.
Additionally, long-term studies suggest at least 50% of patients will be symptom free 10 years after resection and two thirds will avoid further surgery (6). If this were the data for a new drug it would undoubtedly become a best seller. Furthermore it may be possible to customize the surgical ‘banger’ to make it even more reliable and attractive to the discerning customer. The Kono-S anastomosis and more radical mesenteric resection have both been touted as techniques that may reduce recurrence even further (12,13).
What does the data say?
Two recent publications back up these observations. A recent meta-analysis comparing early surgery with medical therapy decreases the risk of overall relapse (OR 0.53) , surgical relapse (OR 0.47) and the need for biological maintenance therapy (OR 0.24) whilst showing no difference in morbidity (14). Perhaps more significantly, long term analysis of the LIRIC data suggests nearly half of those treated with biological end up having surgery within 5 years and the rest remain on medication, switch or escalate treatment. Compare that with the surgical group were although about a quarter of the group required medical therapy for symptomatic recurrence, no one has required further surgery (15) Add to that cost, another clear winner for the surgical ‘banger’. Data again from LIRIC suggests it is €9000 cheaper than the medical option and almost 100% likely to be cost effective (16).
Therefore, it seems that the surgical car is cheaper, more reliable and, despite the looks, is as comfortable and safe as the shiny new medical sports car. However, the unpredictable factor is of course what your partner (patient) thinks. A study by Scott and Hughes (17) suggested about 80% of patients who underwent iloecaecal resection for Crohn’s disease said they ‘wished they had had surgery sooner’. Whilst a pre-biological era study and full of potential bias, many surgeons would be familiar with this phrase from the happy patient sitting in front of them, having undergone successful resection.
How do we proceed?
So there is a quandary here. Every doctor, regardless of specialty, wishes to reduce the need for surgery in Crohn’s but I would argue the evidence points to this being a less favorable option in many. The solution in my view lies in the underlying principle of good care for IBD, a multidisciplinary approach. Patients with Crohn’s Disease who require escalation of treatment should be fully informed of the risks and benefits of both medical and surgical options and make their own mind up. The only way this can be done fully and in an unbiased fashion is by meeting the surgeon earlier, preferably together with the physician in a joint clinic.
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