New Hyperglycemia Emergency Guidance Updates DKA Definition

An upcoming joint society statement on hyperglycemic emergencies in adults with diabetes will de-emphasize glucose from the diagnostic criteria for diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), along with many other updates to the last statement on the topic, published 14 years ago.  

Based on extensive literature reviews and observations of current trends, the new document — due to be published soon — will cover diagnosis and management of the two most serious acute hyperglycemic emergencies seen in adults, DKA and hyperosmolar hyperglycemic state (HHS).

New to the 2023 version will be a strong emphasis on the excess morbidity and mortality risks associated with the increasingly common “hybrid” presentation of the two conditions together, now seen in about a third of cases.

The new report will also more strongly urge clinicians to investigate why the person experienced the emergency.

While new-onset diabetes and infection are recognized precipitating causes for DKA, insulin omission related to finances, mental health, and social determinants should be identified, and patients directed to appropriate resources, said experts previewing the upcoming new report at the European Association for the Study of Diabetes (EASD) annual meeting.

“The challenge is, although we were making progress for a long time in terms of those hyperglycemic crises, we’ve really plateaued and there are still people being admitted in large numbers, and when you look more globally even more so,” said American Diabetes Association (ADA) Chief Science and Medical Officer Robert A. Gabbay, MD, PhD.

The new consensus report will be jointly endorsed by the ADA, the EASD, the American Association of Clinical Endocrinology, the Diabetes Technology Society, and the Joint British Diabetes Societies for Inpatient Care. The previous consensus statement on the subject was published in 2009 by the ADA alone.

New DKA and HHS Definitions Reflect Emerging Trends

The statement will revise the definition of DKA, partly spurred by the increasing occurrence and recognition of euglycemic ketoacidosis arising from the use of sodium–glucose co-transporter 2 (SGLT2) inhibitors. For all patients with hyperglycemic crisis, the hyperglycemia cutoff is now lowered to 200 mg/dL (11.1 mmol/L) from the previous 250 mg/dL.

However, the glucose cutoff has been removed entirely for people with a history of diabetes.

“Both of these changes are recognizing the wide range of glucose levels at the presence of DKA. Approximately 10% of DKA occurs with euglycemia or near-normoglycemia,” noted co-author Shivani Misra, MD, PhD, senior clinical lecturer and honorary consultant in Metabolic Medicine at Imperial College, London, United Kingdom.

For assessing ketosis in DKA, the new statement strongly recommends use of beta-hydroxybutyrate — either via point-of-care test or serum level measured in a laboratory — with a low cutoff of ≥ 3.0 mmol/L. Alternatively, a urine ketone strip value of 2+ or greater can be used.

However, beta-hydroxybutyrate testing is more widely available now than it was in 2009 and is strongly preferred over urine ketone measurement because it’s the predominant ketone during acidosis. Moreover, urine acetoacetate — measured by the strips — paradoxically increases during resolution of DKA, and drug interferences can occur with urine ketone measurement, Misra noted.

Metabolic acidosis is now defined as a pH < 7.3 and/or a bicarbonate concentration < 18 mmol/L, up from 15 in some prior guidelines including the UK’s. Also, anion gap has been removed from the main definition but, the document will say, can still be used in settings where ketone testing is unavailable.

As previously, the new statement will classify DKA by mild, moderate, and severe but now for the first time there are recommendations of care for each of those levels, as well as for HHS.

For HHS, the glucose cutoff of ≥ 600 mg/dL will stay the same. But now, the effective serum osmolality has been lowered from > 320 to > 300 mOsml/L to account for the effect of dehydration, along with an alternative criteria of total serum osmolality > 320 mOsm/L. The same two changes as with DKA for both ketones and acidosis have also been included for HHS.

Asked to comment, session audience member and independent diabetes industry consultant Charles Alexander, MD, told Medscape Medical News, “I liked the proposal to eliminate the anion gap in decision-making and to focus on measurement of blood ketones, principally beta-hydroxybutyrate, in the diagnosis of DKA and monitoring the effect of treatment.

“If someone is on an SGLT2 inhibitor, there is no need to look at blood glucose levels, which may be normal or near normal in the setting of DKA.”

But Alexander thinks that they should have eliminated glucose levels entirely as part of the DKA/HHS definition even for people without diabetes.

“The problem is that medical education for many years has taught us that DKA is a condition of high blood glucose, but it may not be. It is good that they said blood glucose levels were not important if the patient had a history of diabetes. However, a glucose of 200mg/dl may not be low enough if someone is on an SGLT2 inhibitor. There needs to be a much lower threshold for measuring blood ketones in anyone with nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain, regardless of the blood glucose level.”

Acute Management: IV Fluids, Insulin, and Potassium

Like the 2009 statement, the new one will include detailed management flowcharts for DKA and HHS, but this time in color. This new statement includes individual algorithms for management with intravenous fluids, insulin, and potassium. Bicarbonate has been removed and relegated to a note at the bottom saying that it should only be considered if pH is < 7.0.

Under fluid treatment, the new statement offers more information about using crystalloids to treat dehydration and a recommendation to add dextrose to IV fluid therapy as a substrate when the glucose drops below 250 mg/d, in order to prevent hypoglycemia. For euglycemic DKA, the recommendation is to include dextrose and normal saline simultaneously.

And for the first time, subcutaneous rather than IV insulin is considered acceptable for mild, but not moderate or severe, DKA. 

Two options are suggested for IV insulin in HHS: The fluid can be given first and low-dose fixed-rate insulin infusion added, or fluids and insulin can be given at the same time.

Criteria for resolution of DKA are a venous pH of ≥ 7.3 or bicarbonate > 18 mmol/L, ketones < 0.6 mmol/L, and glucose ideally < 200 mg/dl (11.0 mmol/L). For HHS, resolution is suggested when the measured or calculated serum osmolality falls to < 300 mosm/kg, blood glucose is < 250mg/dl (13.9 mmol/L), urine output > 0.5ml/kg/hour, and cognitive status is improved.

The statement also will provide detailed recommended options for transitioning from IV to subcutaneous insulin, but defers to clinical judgement for deciding when the patient can be discharged. The initiation or continuation of SGLT2 inhibitors is not recommended at any time during hospitalization for hyperglycemic crises.

Mitigating Complications, Preventing Recurrence

In addition to listing potential complications of treating hyperglycemic crises, just as the 2009 statement did, the new one will offer mitigation strategies for some of the more common ones. For preventing hypoglycemia, frequent blood glucose monitoring is advised along with adding dextrose to the IV fluids when glucose drops below 250 mg/dL.

For prevention of hypokalemia, which occurs in about half of patients treated for DKA and HHS, the statement recommends potassium monitoring every 4 hours and replacement added to fluids.

Acute kidney injury, also occurring in about half of people treated for DKA and/or HHS, usually resolves with hydration. Daily renal function monitoring is advised.

Preventing Recurrence: Many Factors Beyond Clinical

Prevention of recurrence with readmission for DKA and/or HHS, occurring in up to 22% of US patients within 30 days, entails close follow-up within 2-4 weeks after discharge (including via telemedicine), and assessment of possible causes, including mental health disorders and social determinants of health.

Appropriate education should be provided, including “structured education” involving problem-solving, sick day rules, injection techniques, a review of insulin doses, consideration of continuous glucose monitoring (CGM), and home ketone testing.  

Patients should be provided with an adequate supply of insulin and durable diabetes equipment, along with contact information for healthcare professionals who can assist them. Social service professionals can be helpful for patients who lack reliable access.

Gabbay told Medscape Medical News, “The eye-opening thing is we tend to typically think of DKA as how people tend to get diagnosed with diabetes and, yes, that’s true, but that’s only a minority of people. Those might be preventable by early screening, but all these other people and the number of recurrent episodes, that’s an area where it’s really a failure of the system where we can do better in ensuring that doesn’t happen.”

Education is only part of it, he stressed. “It’s not just an intelligence thing. It’s social factors, and there can be complex psychological issues and mental health issues. We need to screen for those things when we see someone coming back the second, third, fifth, or sixth time. We’ve all seen that. Just educating them to take their insulin is not the answer.…You’ve got to ask the questions and engage them to go a little deeper.”

Gabbay is an employee of the ADA. Alexander has reported being a nonpaid advisor for diaTribe and a consultant for Kinexum. Misra has received speaker fees from Sanofi and ABCD and an investigator-initiated research grant from Dexcom, and is a trustee for the Diabetes Research and Wellness Foundation in the UK.

Presented October 6, 2023, at the annual meeting of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes.

Miriam E. Tucker is a freelance journalist based in the Washington, DC, area. She is a regular contributor to Medscape, with other work appearing in The Washington Post, NPR’s Shots blog, and Diabetes Forecast magazine. She is on Twitter @MiriamETucker.

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