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Patients with Cushing’s syndrome—hypercortisolemia from any etiology—manifest a multitude of debilitating physical, metabolic, and psychiatric symptoms. Cush­ing’s disease (CD)—hypercortisolemia resulting from an adrenocorticotropic hormone-secreting pituitary adenoma— is the cause of about 70% of spontaneous Cushing’s syndrome cases. CD occurs more frequently in women, with most cases found in patients aged 25 to 45.

Although relatively uncommon, CD has been associated with significant mortality and morbidity. Central obesity, wasting of the extremities, hair loss, facial hirsutism, acne, and easy bruising or fragile skin are among the most common patient complaints. Among the more serious comorbidities associ­ated with CD are:

Osteoporosis with pathologic fractures.
Immunosuppression with frequent infections.
Hypertension, diabetes, and cardiac disease.
Psychiatric illness, especially depression.

While surgery to remove the adenoma is successful in 65% to 90% of cases and many associated comorbidities improve with resolution of the hypercortisolemia, the medical and psychological effects of CD may persist after the hypercorti­solemia has resolved.

A Closer Look at the Economic Burden of Cushing’s Disease

In the September 2011 issue of Endocrine Practice, my col­leagues and I had a study published for which we explored the healthcare costs of CD, including its comorbidities, and whether successful treatment improved the economic impact of the disease. Using administrative health insurance data, we compared healthcare resource use and costs among patients with CD with those of patients with non-functioning pitu­itary adenomas (NFPA) and population controls (PC) without pituitary disease. The prevalence of comorbidities and changes in medical costs were analyzed in patients with CD before and after surgical treatment and compared with controls.

We found that coding for insurance claims demonstrated comor­bidities of the same type and distribution that endocrinologists would expect to see in patients with CD, based on clinical crite­ria. As expected, these comorbidities—as manifested in the CD claims—appeared to be significantly more common in patients with CD than in either of the other patient groups.

Our analysis also demonstrated that inpatient admissions, physician office visits, outpatient hospital visits, and emer­gency room visits were higher among CD patients for each year analyzed when compared with NFPA and PC patients. Those with CD required more pharmacologic treatment and had higher associated pharmacy costs when compared with the other two groups. At each of these healthcare delivery sites and during each year studied, the costs associated with CD were four times higher than those associated with NFPA or PC.

Successful Cushing’s Disease Treatment Matters

A key finding in our investigation, however, was that the effect of the costs attributed to CD appeared to be amelio­rated with successful treatment of the disease. For those who did not achieve surgical remission, postoperative total costs more than doubled when compared with preoperative total costs; inpatient costs, pharmacy costs, and outpatient costs all increased after unsuccessful treatment. When surgery was successful, outpatient costs decreased significantly. Overall and inpatient costs were also reduced with successful surgery.

The increased mortality risk and comorbidities of CD require aggressive treatment on clinical grounds. Our study indicates that aggressive management is cost-effective and decreases the overall healthcare burden associated with the disease.