Under the radar, over the holiday week, the NEJM published a report on transfusion requirements in older adults who surgical hip repair. The main finding is that most patients, including the elderly and those at risk for cardiac complications of the procedure, don’t benefit from getting so many red blood cell transfusions as is commonly prescribed.

The study, funded by the NHLBI, involved more than 2000 adults over 50 years of age who underwent hip surgery. Overall the patients were quite elderly, with a mean age above 80 in each group. The trial included patients with heart disease and risk factors for cardiac complications. Participants were randomized to receive red blood cells if their hemoglobin fell to a level below one of either two thresholds: 10 or 8 gm/dl. What happened is that, at the time of discharge from the hospital and by 60 days after the procedure, the rates of death, coronary syndrome and other complications were the same.

An accompanying editorial weighs in on the study and conclusion, that a standard threshold for ordering transfusions in the context of major hip surgery might be lowered. Reducing transfusions would lower demands on the blood supply, lessen the costs of administering these infusions, and reduce complications from infected or otherwise-damaging pints.

The study is important because it bolsters the evidence that too many units of blood are administered routinely.  Sometimes with good reason, busy surgeons recommend a threshold for what’s almost an automatic order that blood to be given. If there is such a threshold in a SICU (surgical ICU), operating room or elsewhere, this report suggests it’s often too high.

It would be better, for sure, if transfusions were ordered on a case-by-case basis, with input by a doctor who would assess each patient’s baseline level of hemoglobin and other relevant factors. For example, a patient who’s been anemic for years may tolerate a lower hemoglobin level than someone who’s never been anemic before, or whose lung function is marginal.

Still, the main take is that many patients undergoing surgery need less blood than their doctors realize, and that we can safely, overall, reduce the number of transfusions ordered for many patients, even in those who are older and with risk of heart disease.

What patients might do: if you’re going to have major surgery, talk with your doctor about whether you might need blood and how the surgeon will decide if you need blood or not, and how much. If you have a strong preference to avoid transfusion, let your doctor know about that and discuss how you might avoid getting unnecessary pints.

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