April 24 , 2007
Joanmarie Pellegrini, MD
Everyone probably knows that blood transfusions come with a risk. However, most of us believe that the only risk is that of transmitting a virus. However, it turns out that blood transfusions come with much more risks than previously thought. It is intuitive that if someone has life-threatening hemorrhage, they will likely need a blood transfusion as part of their treatment. But, what about the person who is simply anemic (a low level of blood in their body) or the one that has bled only a small amount? If you are a patient in the hospital and you have a low blood count and are tired, some doctors would give you a blood transfusion to “perk” you up a bit. Unfortunately, that transfusion comes with more harm than benefit. We now know that patients that get transfusions are more likely to get infections, stay longer in the hospital, and have higher mortality rates from certain procedures. In other words, that blood does not really “perk” you up.
There was a time when we believed that it was a good idea to donate your own blood before undergoing a big operation. However, we now know this practice does not improve outcomes and actually increases that patient’s likelihood of receiving a blood transfusion. Another old belief is that it is better to get friends and family to donate for you. This also has been shown to be unhelpful and does not decrease the risks associated with blood transfusions.
So, what is one to do? First, if you have a low blood count, talk to your doctor about ways of increasing it without a transfusion. If you are planning on undergoing a surgery, talk to your surgeon about the likelihood of needing a transfusion and also about ways to avoid that need. I have not found a comprehensive patient-friendly web site that provides accurate education about blood transfusions and how to avoid them. One web site (www.sabm.org) though is well respected in the medical field and is a good resource for medical professionals. This web site does has an informational brochure that can be printed out for more information.