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Study Ties Blood Transfusions to Increased Risk of Infections

Update Date: Apr 02, 2014 05:08 PM EDT

During hospital stays, patients can get infections due to several reasons that are not directly caused by their illnesses. One of the most common risks of infections is caused by a blood transfusion. In a new study, researchers found that if hospitals performed fewer blood transfusions, infection rates could fall by 20 percent.

For this study, the researchers headed by Neil Blumberg, M.D., professor at the University of Rochester (UR) School of Medicine and Dentistry, examined data including 8,735 patients. The data came from 18 randomized clinical trials. Blumberg, who is the director of transfusion medicine and the blood bank at UR medicine, has been trying to find ways of making blood transfusions safer for over two decades.

"Many people are beginning to accept that we can make a difference - despite being taught in medical school that blood transfusions 'might help and can't hurt,'" Blumberg said in the press release. "What we've found is actually the opposite, that it can hurt and it rarely helps."

Blumberg and his colleagues analyzed the trials by splitting them into two groups, which were the liberal use versus the restrictive use of blood transfusions. Blood transfusions were used based on the concentration of red blood cells in a given blood sample. Under the liberal use method, the concentration would be around nine or 10 grams per deciliter. To qualify as restrictive use, the concentration would need to dip to seven or eight grams per deciliter.

The team found that following the restrictive use method reduced infection rates by 18 percent. These infections included pneumonia, wound infections and sepsis. The researchers calculated that if doctors all conducted blood transfusions based on the restrictive use method, 26 out of every 1,000 patient that might need a transfusion could be spared an infection.

Each infection can cost an extra $50,000 in healthcare costs. Due to these costs and the increased risk of death from such infections, the researchers stressed the importance of adopting the restrictive use approach.

"We must retrain medical staff to stop thinking of transfusion as a first resort," Blumberg added.

The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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