Having a low blood count increase complications from liver surgery

A low blood count is common with cancer. There are now more studies showing that this can contribute to complications after surgery. Blood transfusion increases blood count but is best avoided in cancer unless the blood count is very low. This new study in the journal HPB shows the effect of anaemia after liver surgery. Here is the editorial highlight I wrote for the journal.

Preoperative anaemia is common and affects 30-60% of patients undergoing major elective surgery. In major non-cardiac surgery, anaemia is associated with increased morbidity and mortality, as well as higher blood transfusion rates.

The importance of preoperative anaemia in liver resection patients is becoming recognised. In this issue, Tohme and colleagues present an evaluation of the American College of Surgeons’ National Surgical Quality Improvement Program (ACS-NSQIP) database.

Of around 13000 patients who underwent elective liver resection from 2005 to 2012, one third were anaemic prior to surgery. After adjustment, anaemia was associated with major complications after surgery (OR 1.21, 1.09-1.33) but not death.

Patients who are anaemic have different characteristics to those who are not, characteristics that are likely to make them more susceptible to complications. While this analysis extensively adjusts for observed factors, residual confounding almost certainly exists.

The question remains, does anaemia itself contribute to the occurrence of complications, or is it just a symptom of greater troubles? The authors rightly highlight the importance of identifying anaemia prior to surgery, but it remains to be seen whether treatment is possible and whether it will result in better patient outcomes.

Perioperative transfusion is independently associated with major complications. Although there is no additive effect in anaemic patients, the benefits of treating anaemia may be offset by the detrimental effect of transfusion. For those with iron deficiency, treatment with intravenous iron may be of use and is currently being studied in an RCT of all major surgery (preventt.lshtm.ac.uk). Results of studies such as these will help determine causal relationships and whether intervention is possible and beneficial.