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Anesthesia & Analgesia:
doi: 10.1213/ANE.0000000000000299
Editorials: Editorial

Shared Decision-Making and Blood Transfusions: Is It Time to Share More?

Toledo, Paloma MD, MPH

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From the Department of Anesthesiology and Center for Healthcare Studies, Institute for Public Health and Medicine, Northwestern University, Chicago, Illinois.

Accepted for publication February 19, 2014.

Funding: Dr. Toledo is supported by a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development program award. The content is solely the responsibility of the author and does not necessarily represent the official views of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The author declares no conflicts of interest.

Reprints will not be available from the author.

Address correspondence to Paloma Toledo, MD, MPH, Department of Anesthesiology and Center for Healthcare Studies, Institute for Public Health and Medicine, Northwestern University, 251 E. Huron St., F5-704, Chicago, IL 60611. Address e-mail to

In the United States, blood transfusions are the most frequently performed hospital procedure; current data suggest that approximately 12% of hospitalized patients receive transfusions.a Between 1997 and 2011, the rate of in-hospital transfusions increased 134%.a According to the American Red Cross, approximately 30 million blood components are transfused each year.b In most nontrauma situations, the decision to transfuse is a joint decision made between a clinician who offers the possibility of a transfusion to a patient and the patient who accepts the transfusion. In many situations, clinical equipoise regarding the need for the transfusion exists. Clinical equipoise is an ethical concept, defining the circumstance in which there is genuine uncertainty among the expert medical community about the preferred treatment.1 The American Society of Anesthesiologists Practice Guidelines for Perioperative Blood Transfusion reflects this equipoise, in that none of the recommendations state that patients absolutely must be transfused at certain threshold values.2 Instead, the guidelines frame the transfusion decision in terms of individual patient-level risks and benefits. Patients who are offered transfusions weigh these risks and benefits when making the decision to accept a transfusion. Patients assume risks with accepting as well as rejecting a blood transfusion, but these risks and outcomes may be valued differently by individual patients, thus making most transfusions a preference-sensitive condition.

In Crossing the Quality Chasm, the Institute of Medicine stated that high-quality health care should be patient-centered.3 Patient-centered care incorporates individual patient preferences, needs, and values into clinical decisions, thereby ensuring that patient values guide all decisions.3 The concept of patient-centered care, in which the patient partners with the physician in clinical decision-making, contrasts with “paternalistic” or physician-driven care.4 Several models conceptually describe the process of shared decision-making between patients and physicians. In the model by Charles et al.,5 which is the most frequently used model,6 there are 3 stages to decision-making: (1) information sharing between the physician and the patient, (2) consensus building on the preferred treatment, and (3) agreement on the treatment to implement. Two articles published in this issue of Anesthesia & Analgesia highlight potential problems with the delivery of patient-centered care as it relates to blood transfusion therapy in the perioperative setting.

Brown et al.7 used data from 20,930 surgical patients at a single institution to determine whether after risk adjustment, patients aged >65 years were more likely to be transfused than younger patients during their hospital stay. Twenty-seven percent of patients in the older group were transfused compared with 16% of younger patients. Using multivariable logistic regression modeling to control for medical comorbidities, type of surgery, gender, estimated blood loss, and lowest in-hospital hemoglobin concentration, older patients had a 62% greater odds of transfusion than did younger patients. Exploratory analyses demonstrated 2 interesting findings. Individual surgeons were relatively consistent in their practice of transfusing older patients more than younger patients, and specific surgical services were more likely to transfuse older patients. No currently published transfusion guidelines include patient age as a factor in the decision to transfuse. Therefore, physicians may be preferentially recommending transfusions to older patients, or alternatively, older patients are more accustomed to a paternalistic model of health care and accept transfusion therapy at a higher rate than younger patients.

Physicians may also lack knowledge about the content of transfusion guidelines, and this knowledge deficit may contribute to unnecessary transfusions. A study published in Anesthesia & Analgesia in 2010 surveyed anesthesiologists and perfusionists on the effect of the 2007 Society of Thoracic Surgeons and the Society of Cardiovascular Anesthesiologists Clinical Practice Guidelines for Perioperative Blood Transfusion and Blood Conservation in Cardiac Surgery on their practice. Surprisingly, 25% of anesthesiologists and 33% of all of the perfusionists who completed the survey had not read all, or parts, of the guidelines.8 Other investigators have also found that physician knowledge of guideline content is low,9 and this may contribute to patients not receiving guideline-recommended care.10

In addition to physicians being unaware of guideline content, they, as well as patients, may lack knowledge of the risks and benefits of transfusions. The study by Vetter et al.11 in the current issue of the Journal provides in-depth insight into patient and physician perspectives on blood transfusions. In this single-institution study, patients who presented for a preoperative surgical consultation were asked to complete a survey that evaluated their perceptions of the risk and frequency of adverse events related to blood transfusion. A similar survey was developed for surgeons and anesthesiologists. Although transfusion safety has significantly improved in the past 20 years, 20% of patients and nearly 40% of physicians stated that transfusions were very often or always risky.11 Evaluation of specific adverse events revealed knowledge gaps for both the patients and their physicians. For example, both patients and physicians overestimated the risk of a transfusion-related fever, allergic reaction, or hemolytic transfusion reaction. While physicians correctly estimated the risk of viral transmission of human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immune deficiency syndrome and hepatitis, nearly 9% of patients believed that transmission of these diseases occurs very often or with every transfusion. Yet, despite the fact that there were significant knowledge gaps, which were worse for certain subgroups such as racial/ethnic minorities, 95% of patients were willing to undergo a transfusion if it were recommended to them by their physician.

Many clinicians perceive that the only patients who actively make transfusion decisions are Jehovah’s witnesses, who believe that allogeneic blood transfusion is prohibited by the Bible,12 but the population of patients who would refuse blood transfusion is in fact much larger. A nationally representative telephone survey found that 33% of respondents would not accept an allogeneic blood transfusion if it were recommended to them by their physician.13 In that study, as the perceived risk of transfusions increased, the likelihood of accepting a transfusion decreased.13 In another study in which participants assigned a “dread score” of 1 to 7 to various hazards, with a score of 7 indicating that the hazard was “dreaded, risky, and worrisome if exposed,” nonphysician respondents gave blood transfusions a dread score of approximately 4.5, which was similar to the dread of nuclear reactors and pesticides.14 As Vetter et al.11 demonstrated, a significant number of patients view transfusions as being “risky.” Thus, understanding patient fears and perceptions becomes important when counseling patients on the risks of blood transfusions.

There are no formal guidelines as to what information needs to be included in informed consent for blood transfusion. It is generally accepted that risks with an incidence >1% should be disclosed to patients, as well as risks that occur less frequently, but are associated with serious morbidity or mortality.15 Yet, evidence suggests that these disclosure guidelines are not routinely practiced. Friedman et al.16 evaluated consent for transfusion in the medical setting and found gaps in both the content and quality of information delivered to patients. Internal medicine residents tended to overestimate the benefits of transfusions, focus on the common, minor risks, and either not mention, or underestimate, the major risks.16 Of greater concern is that 14% of patients were not aware of the indication for their transfusion, despite having accepted the transfusion.

Shared decision-making has been associated with better patient satisfaction and health outcomes.17,18 In the era of shared decision-making and patient-centered care, it is important that physicians counsel patients with accurate information, therefore efforts should be made to increase physician knowledge of both the risks and benefits of transfusions and also of relevant transfusion guidelines. However, simply counseling with accurate information does not make the care patient-centered. Shared decision-making requires communication and joint decision-making. Studies that have attempted to quantify the degree of shared decision-making in medical encounters have found that only half of decision moments between attending physicians and patients qualified as shared decision-making,19 and using a more lenient threshold, only 40% of decision-making moments between medical students and standardized patients met criteria for shared decision-making.20 Racial disparities in shared decision-making21 and in the patient-centeredness of medical interactions have been demonstrated.22,23 Given that Vetter et al.11 found that the majority of patients were willing to accept blood transfusions despite broad misconceptions about risk and benefit and that Brown et al.7 demonstrated a disparity in transfusion practice based on age, it is quite possible that other disparities exist in transfusion decision-making. Women, minorities, and patients with a high school education or less are more likely to perceive transfusions as being nonsafe13; patients with distrust of the medical system, with low health literacy, and/or with limited English proficiency may be especially vulnerable for making misinformed decisions.c These patients may not accept an indicated transfusion because of misperceived risks, or accept a transfusion and suffer from decisional regret.

What can or should be done? One possible strategy is to develop an evidence-based decision aid for blood transfusions. Decision aids are evidence-based tools that are designed to help patients participate in decision-making when there are several health care options. Decision aids are intended to supplement patient–provider interactions by helping prepare patients to make informed, value-based decisions with their health care provider.24 An example is a decision aid for breast cancer screening. Currently, controversy exists on whether patients should initiate breast cancer screening at the age of 40 or 50 years.25 A decision aid exists to help women with this decision.d The decision aid presents the facts about breast cancer and mammography, it then asks a series of questions relating to patient’s perceived risk of cancer, attitudes toward procedures, false-positive results, and radiation exposure; this section is followed by a knowledge quiz and questions that help guide the patient through the decision. A systematic review of 115 studies found that decision aids, when compared with usual care, improved patient knowledge, reduced decisional conflict, and seemed to have a positive impact on patient–provider communication.24 At minimum, if such a decision aid was developed for blood transfusions, patients and physicians would be sharing the same knowledge, and this would hopefully result in patients making truly informed decisions about blood transfusion therapy, bringing us one step closer to high-quality, patient-centered care.

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Name: Paloma Toledo, MD, MPH.

Contribution: This author wrote the manuscript.

Attestation: Paloma Toledo attests to having approved the final manuscript.

This manuscript was handled by: Franklin Dexter, MD, PhD.

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a Most Frequent Procedures Performed in U.S. Hospitals, 2011. HCUP Statistical Brief #165. Available at: Accessed January 1, 2014. Cited Here...

b Blood Facts and Statistics. Available at: Accessed January 1, 2014. Cited Here...

c 2011 National Healthcare Quality and Disparities Report. Available at: Accessed January 1, 2014. Cited Here...

d Breast Cancer Screening: When Should I Start Having Mammograms? Available at: Accessed February 14, 2014. Cited Here...

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