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Utility of Hemoglobin A1c in Predicting Diabetes Risk, Underused

HbA1c testing helps predict the likelihood that patients will develop diabetes in the future.

There is controversy surrounding the issue of whether, and how, to screen adults for type 2 diabetes. The objective was to measure the incidence of new diabetes among outpatients enrolled in a health care system, and to determine whether hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c) values would allow risk stratification for patients’ likelihood of developing diabetes over 3 years.

A prospective cohort study was done with 3-year follow-up at a single large, tertiary care, Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC). A convenience sample of 1,253 outpatients without diabetes, age 45 to 64, with a scheduled visit at the VAMC, were screened for diabetes using an initial HbA1c measurement. All subjects with HbA1c 6.0% (normal, 4.0% to 6.0%) were invited for follow-up fasting plasma glucose (FPG). We then surveyed patients annually for 3 years to ascertain interval diagnosis of diabetes by a physician. The baseline screening process was repeated 3 years after initial screening. After the baseline screening, new cases of diabetes were defined as either the self-report of a physician’s diagnosis of diabetes, or by HbA1c 7.0% or FPG 7.0 mmol/L at 3-year follow-up. The incidence of diabetes was calculated as the number of new cases per person-year of follow-up.

One thousand two hundred fifty-three patients were screened initially, and 56 (4.5%) were found to have prevalent unrecognized diabetes at baseline. The 1,197 patients without diabetes at baseline accrued 3,257 person-years of follow-up. There were 73 new cases of diabetes over 3 years of follow-up, with an annual incidence of 2.2% (95% confidence interval [CI], 1.7% to 2.7%). In a multivariable logistic regression model, baseline HbA1c and baseline body mass index (BMI) were the only significant predictors of new onset diabetes, with HbA1c having a greater effect than BMI. The annual incidence of diabetes for patients with baseline HbA1c 5.5 was 0.8% (CI, 0.4% to 1.2%); for HbA1c 5.6 to 6.0, 2.5% (CI, 1.6% to 3.5%); and for HbA1c 6.1 to 6.9, 7.8% (CI, 5.2% to 10.4%). Obese patients with HbA1c 5.6 to 6.0 had an annual incidence of diabetes of 4.1% (CI, 2.2% to 6.0%).

From the results it was concluded, that HbA1c testing helps predict the likelihood that patients will develop diabetes in the future. Patients with normal HbA1c have a low incidence of diabetes and may not require rescreening in 3 years. However, patients with elevated HbA1c who do not have diabetes may need more careful follow-up and possibly aggressive treatment to reduce the risk of diabetes. Patients with high-normal HbA1c may require follow-up sooner than 3 years, especially if they are significantly overweight or obese. This predictive value suggests that HbA1c may be a useful test for periodic diabetes screening.
Journal of General Internal Medicine
Volume 19 Issue 12 Page 1175 – December 2004


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