Anemia and blood transfusion in the critically ill patient with cardiovascular disease
© Docherty and Walsh. 2017
Published: 21 March 2017
This article is one of ten reviews selected from the Annual Update in Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine 2017. Other selected articles can be found online at http://ccforum.com/series/annualupdate2017. Further information about the Annual Update in Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine is available from http://www.springer.com/series/8901.
Anemia and cardiovascular disease
Anemia and outcomes in patients with cardiovascular disease
Anemia is associated with worse outcomes in patients with CVD, both in terms of severity of illness, and mortality. Anemia is a significant risk factor in ischemic heart disease (IHD), correlating with advanced IHD, chronic heart failure, rhythm disturbance and higher mortality rate in comparison to non‐anemic patients . Anemia is also an independent predictor of major adverse cardiovascular events in patients across the spectrum of acute coronary syndrome (ACS) . Anemia in heart failure is associated with impaired functional capacity and cardiac function, renal dysfunction, increased rate of hospitalizations and poor prognosis . However, these studies are all observational, and the direction of causality is difficult to ascertain – anemia may cause the worse outcomes, or it may be a reflection of the severity of the underlying chronic disease. It therefore follows that correction with red blood cells (RBCs) may not improve patient prognosis.
Evidence from transfusion trials
All major RBC transfusion trials have compared restrictive with liberal transfusion strategies based on higher versus lower hemoglobin thresholds for transfusion [9–13]. Trials based in the ICU have shown that a more restrictive transfusion threshold of 7.0 g/dl is as safe as a more liberal threshold for the general ICU population [9, 11, 14]. A recent systematic review did not find any association with mortality, overall morbidity or myocardial infarction when comparing restrictive transfusion strategies with liberal transfusion strategies; however, the overall quality of evidence was low . A Cochrane review indicated that restrictive transfusion strategies were not associated with an increased rate of adverse events (mortality, cardiac events, stroke, pneumonia and thromboembolism) compared with liberal transfusion strategies. Restrictive transfusion strategies were associated with a reduction in hospital mortality but not in 30‐day mortality . A review published in 2014 using restrictive hemoglobin transfusion triggers of 7 g/dl showed reductions in in‐hospital mortality, total mortality, rebleeding, ACS, pulmonary edema, and bacterial infections compared with liberal transfusion .
However, these trials were based in general ICU cohorts, and there is the risk of practice misalignment, whereby inclusion of heterogeneous populations in trials can mask potentially divergent effects in subpopulations . Both of the major transfusion trials in ICUs had underpowered pre‐defined subgroups that suggested that a more liberal transfusion threshold may be beneficial in patients with CVD [9, 11]. Evidence is also limited by the under‐representation of patients with CVD in trials. Observational studies suggest the prevalence of CVD in ICU patients is around 30% [1, 3]; however patients with CVD accounted for only 20% of patients recruited to the Transfusion Requirements in Critical Care (TRICC) trial compared with 29% of patients excluded , and only 14% of patients recruited to the Transfusion Requirements in Septic Shock (TRISS) trial . A trial undertaken in patients presenting with acute gastrointestinal bleeding trial excluded all patients with significant CVD .
Evidence in patients with co‐existing cardiovascular disease
Table of guidelines for red blood cell transfusion in patients with cardiovascular disease
Recommendation for general
Recommendation for CVD
British Committee for Standards in Haematology 
7.0 g/dl, target 7.0–9.0 g/dl
Stable angina should have a Hb maintained > 7.0 g/dl
NICE: National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence 
7.0 g/dl, target 7.0–9.0 g/dl
ACS: transfusion threshold of 8.0 g/dl, target of 8.0–10.0 g/dl
Chronic: further research
Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland 
Uncertainty remains for patients with ischemic heart disease, higher thresholds (8.0 g/dl) may be appropriate
American Association of Blood Banks (AABB) 
Patients with symptoms or a Hb level of 8.0 g/dl or less
Clinician variability in decision making
Audits of blood transfusion practice in the UK have consistently shown that around 20% of blood product usage is outside guideline recommendations . This variation in practice was evident in an analysis of the ABLE trial (Age of transfused blood in critically ill adults), which found that the presence of co‐existing CVD modified transfusion thresholds .
Future trial design
A pragmatic RCT of restrictive versus liberal blood transfusion thresholds in patients with CVD with mortality as a primary outcome is likely to encounter the same difficulties as previous trials. In order to find a 5% reduction in mortality (32 to 27%, 90% power), a two‐arm trial would require nearly 2,000 patients. Within this population will be patients with differing severity of cardiovascular disease, and differing severity of acute illness, and there is again the risk of practice misalignment. Using the ‘PICO’ model, we address some of the difficulties a future trial might encounter and offer some potential solutions.
Critically ill patients with co‐existing CVD are not all the same. There is a spectrum of severity of both CVD and critical illness, and it follows that the balance of risks and benefits of transfusion may change along this spectrum.
One approach could be to limit the trial population to the highest risk group, such as those with high severity of illness scores at presentation to the ICU (e. g., APACHE II score > 19), or those with known coronary artery disease. This would mean that we are focusing on the group in which we are most likely to see a difference in outcome between restrictive and liberal thresholds. In addition to this, these patients have high hospital and longer‐term mortality, which may make trial numbers more manageable. If no difference is found, then we could say with confidence that patients with CVD do not benefit from higher transfusion thresholds. However, if there is a benefit in this high‐risk group (and from previous trials, we have seen no benefit in patients without CVD), we would be unable to recommend practice for the low‐risk CVD group – patients who are either less critically ill or have milder co‐existing CVD. A subsequent trial would potentially need to be undertaken in this group.
It is physiologically appealing to design a trial that individualizes transfusion based on patient risk of mortality or ACS. Those patients at high risk would be transfused at a higher threshold than those at lower risk. Significant work would need to be carried out modelling risk in this population to inform the trial design, and observational studies are ongoing . An adaptive trial design, allowing the risk algorithm to be informed by previous participants in the trial would reduce the risk to patients of being randomized to a harmful threshold and would be more cost‐effective.
RBC transfusion is current standard practice for correcting anemia in critically ill patients, and it would be logical to continue this in a future trial. Iron therapy plus or minus erythropoietin would be another potential intervention. There is a functional iron deficiency in critical illness and a theoretical increased risk of bacterial infection with the use of iron, and although there is an ongoing trial into intravenous iron in critical illness , use of iron or erythropoietin is not standard during the acute phase of critical illness. Previous large trials of erythropoietin have not shown efficacy for significantly reducing RBC transfusions and/or increasing hemoglobin by clinically relevant amounts . A limitation of both iron and erythropoietin is their slow impact on erythropoiesis and hemoglobin level in the context of acute illness. It seems likely that RBC transfusion will remain the therapy of choice for acutely increasing hemoglobin concentration in critical illness.
Previous transfusion trials have all compared liberal with restrictive transfusion hemoglobin thresholds. There are limitations in using hemoglobin, given that the concentration is significantly affected by fluid resuscitation, however this is a pragmatic approach which is reproducible and routinely measured. In a population in which patients are not sedated and ventilated, an alternative could be to transfuse based on symptomatology, or potentially anaerobic threshold, but this is unlikely to be feasible in the ICU.
Thresholds have varied between trials (restrictive 7.0–9.7 g/dl, liberal 9.0–11.3 g/dl ), with overlap between restrictive thresholds in some trials and liberal in others. The larger the difference in thresholds, the more likely a difference will be shown, and a trial of 7 g/dl (current practice excepting ACS) vs 90 g/l would need fewer patients than 7.5–8.0 g/dl vs 9.0 g/dl. Clinicians need equipoise, and if clinicians are unwilling to randomize patients with CVD to a low threshold of 7.0 g/dl then a higher threshold must be agreed on, otherwise high‐risk patients may be excluded from the trial.
The majority of blood transfusion threshold trials have used 30‐day mortality as their primary outcome. There are many causes of mortality in critically ill patients and it is difficult to argue that mortality during the first few days of critical illness is anything other than a result of the severity of presenting illness. A 10–20% difference in hemoglobin concentration seems to lack biological plausibility to alter this substantially. Longer‐term mortality may be a more appropriate endpoint either in isolation or combination with measures of quality of life.
Acute coronary syndrome
Acute coronary syndrome (ACS) in patients with co‐existing cardiovascular disease in critical care blood transfusion threshold trials. Diagnosis made by Investigator (I) or Clinician (C)
Diagnosis of ACS
Incidence of new ACS
de Almeida, 2015 
Major abdominal cancer surgery
Clinical symptoms suggesting myocardial ischemia with ≥ 1 of the following:
increase/decrease in cTnI (≥1 value > 99th centile upper reference limit);
EKG changes: new Q waves, ST elevation, new LBBB;
Image‐based evidence of new loss of viable myocardium
Hebert, 1999 
Holst, 2014 
Symptoms, EKG signs, or elevated biomarker levels resulting in an intervention
Walsh, 2013 
Older, mechanically ventilated
Troponin rise, new EKG change
Duration of mechanical ventilation
Duration of mechanical ventilation, length of stay in ICU/hospital (LOS) in patients with co‐existing cardiovascular disease in critical care blood transfusion threshold trials
Health-related quality of life (HRQOL)
There are few data regarding the prevalence and time course of anemia after intensive care. One study showed that 77% of patients were still anemic at hospital discharge and that nearly half the patients who were in the ICU for seven or more days had hemoglobin concentrations < 10.0 g/dl . In a study looking at patients mechanically ventilated > 24 h and discharged from ICU with hemoglobin concentrations < 10.0 g/dl, half the patients were still anemic at six months . The anemia was predominantly normochromic and normocytic, consistent with ongoing inflammation, inappropriate erythropoietin response and poor marrow RBC production, although the contribution of iron deficiency is difficult to ascertain in these states. These patients had a reduced mean SF‐36 score at both 3 and 6 months compared to the normal population. Studies looking at HRQOL for anemia and other chronic disease such as malignancy  and end‐stage renal disease  consistently show an association between hemoglobin concentrations and HRQOL. Fatigue is a prevalent symptom among survivors, and many of the physical features of the post‐ICU syndrome are typical of anemia . However, the causal association between anemia and fatigue, and reduced HRQOL, in this patient group are not well studied. Equally, there are no high quality studies exploring whether interventions to treat and correct anemia, whether with RBC transfusion or non‐transfusion interventions such as iron or erythropoietin, can modify these important outcomes.
The cost of a unit of blood is around £120 in the UK, but this does not take into account the complications avoided and complications arising from transfusion. Evaluation of the cost‐effectiveness of RBC transfusion is essential. The combination of very high hospital costs for critically ill survivors  and low HRQOL during the months following survivorship means that the loss of quality‐adjusted life years (QALYs) is substantial following critical illness. The rationale for blood transfusion is to decrease both deaths and complications, such as new ACS, which might impact further on quality of life, thus improving HRQOL and cost‐effectiveness. Few completed ICU studies have included health economic evaluations. Cost‐effectiveness analysis of the Transfusion Indication Threshold Reduction (TITRe) II blood transfusion threshold in cardiac surgery trial found no clear difference between restrictive and liberal arms up to three months after surgery . Hemoglobin concentration remained different at hospital discharge in the Restrictive and Liberal Transfusion Strategies in Intensive Care (RELIEVE) trial , suggesting that longer term exposure to anemia and its effect on HRQOL is potentially important for survivors. It seems logical for future transfusion trials during critical illness to include an economic evaluation in addition to measuring clinical outcomes, especially in exploring the hypothesis that treating anemia might improve quality of life among survivors.
Future areas for research
The mechanism of troponin release in critically ill patients with cardiovascular disease is not yet fully understood and the relative contribution of ischemic versus inflammatory injury is unknown. This has potentially important therapeutic implications. At present, imaging is mainly limited to bedside transthoracic echocardiography (TTE) due to concerns regarding transferring unstable patients to isolated locations such as the computed tomography (CT) scanner or for angiography. Standard TTE is technically more difficult in these patients, and has only moderate diagnostic accuracy.
Strain TTE, is a relatively novel imaging technique and describes the lengthening, shortening or thickening, also known as regional deformation, of the myocardium . It uses the unique ‘speckle’ pattern visible in the myocardium on routine echo images. It follows the movement of blocks of speckle pattern over time frames and is able to capture longitudinal, circumferential and radial strain (rate of deformation). This algorithm results in objective analyses of myocardial function, and is more sensitive than standard TTE evaluation of left ventricular function. It has been successfully used to demonstrate left ventricular dysfunction in septic patients in critical care , and stress cardiomyopathy in patients with subarachnoid hemorrhage .
Cardiac magnetic resonance
Cardiac magnetic resonance is another non‐invasive imaging technique that allows for accurate visualization of tissue changes in patients with acute myocardial disease. In the context of troponin elevation in critical illness, it is of particular value in distinguishing myocardial infarction from other myocardial abnormalities such as myocarditis, due to the ability to distinguish between subendocardial and other patterns of fibrosis. Cardiac magnetic resonance is able to detect the increased tissue edema in acute myocardial infarction that lasts up to five weeks and the scar from myocardial necrosis . This means that patients would be able to be scanned in the recovery period for troponin elevations that occurred in acute critical illness.
Blood transfusion in recovery from critical illness
Given the long trajectory of anemia in critical care survivors, another important area to study is the impact of blood transfusion in patients once they have recovered from their critical illness. It would be possible to look at both physiological parameters and patient HRQOL before and after RBC transfusion. Continuous pulmonary exercise testing (C‐PEX) can give an objective assessment of anaerobic threshold, as well as monitor for ischemia by EKG monitoring. Important patient outcomes, such as fatigue and breathlessness, can be explored with qualitative patient interviews or more structured questionnaires.
There is biological plausibility that patients with CVD may benefit from higher transfusion thresholds than patients without CVD. Evidence from a systematic review and meta‐analysis in this population suggest that there is no difference in 30‐day mortality, but there is an increased risk of ACS in patients with CVD who were randomized to a restrictive transfusion threshold compared with a more liberal threshold. We suggest that a more liberal transfusion threshold (>80 g/l) in this population should be used until a high‐quality trial including endpoints for longer term mortality, ACS, quality of life and cost effectiveness has been performed.
Publication costs were funded by the University of Ediburgh.
Availability of data and materials
ABD and TSW conceived, drafted and revised the manuscript. Both authors read and approved the final manuscript.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
Consent for publication
Ethics approval and consent to participate
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