Blood Transfusions Are Surprisingly Risky

Blood transfusions are performed routinely during surgery and other medical procedures, and many lives have been saved because of transfusions. Most of the time, everything is fine and the patient recovers. However, transfusions shouldn’t be seen as routine, as suggested by a number of medical malpractice cases here and abroad.

Transfusion errors at home and abroad

A recent story from Saudi Arabia revealed that practices for donating and screening blood for transfusions were shockingly bad. A 13-year old girl was given HIV-tainted blood – even after the hospital was told that the blood was contaminated. The Saudi Ministry of Health is cleaning house after the episode and many officials and staffers have lost their jobs.

In India, courts recently ordered a doctor to pay the son of a man who died during surgery after being given the wrong type of blood.

If you’re thinking that this couldn’t happen here, you’re wrong. An 81-year old California woman was given the wrong blood type, causing multiple organ failure and death. There are numerous stories from the 1980s and later about people receiving HIV-infected blood, even after it was known that this was one of the easiest ways to transmit HIV-AIDS.

In 2007, a 34-year-old Atlanta man received the wrong blood during what should have been routine surgery. The blood had apparently been mistyped by the Red Cross blood bank. That organization has apparently paid numerous fines over the years because it failed to follow standard safety procedures to prevent such errors.

Studies reveal dangers of transfusions

Transfusions during surgery are most frequently used during heart surgery, hip replacement surgery and cancer treatment. Studies have shown that patients who receive donated blood during surgery have an increased risk of death over patients who do not receive transfusions. Older blood especially is implicated in poor outcomes: One study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine found that patients who received blood that was more than two weeks old were 70 percent more likely to die within a year than patients who received fresher blood.

Why are transfusions risky?

The reasons for this are not totally clear. Some researchers think that donated blood somehow suppresses a patient’s immune system, making it harder to fight off post-operative infections. Additionally, it is well-known that soon after being collected, the red blood cell walls become stiff, making it harder for them to move through veins and arteries. The result: heart attacks, strokes and organ failure. Other negative transfusion consequences include transfusion-related acute lung injury, allergic reactions and infections.

Cleveland Clinic pulls back on transfusions

Because of these risks, medical researchers have begun to question whether all transfusions are really necessary or whether they should be used as last resorts. One study showed that only 12 percent of transfusions were medically essential.

The Cleveland Clinic is thought to have pioneered the use of direct transfusions during surgery. It seems fitting that the same organization is now at the forefront of blood management and the effort to reduce the number of surgical transfusions both for cost reasons and to reduce adverse effects like those described above. It has adopted strict protocols governing the use of transfusions and has significantly reduced the number of transfusions during surgery.

Other equally prestigious institutions have followed suit, limiting blood transfusions during surgery to measurable scenarios such as a predetermined haemoglobin level. Despite changes in approaches to transfusions, the procedure will be risky for many years and will never be entirely error-free. Mistakes in typing, infection screening and storage procedures will make blood transfusions a continuing cause of unnecessary injury or death.

If you or a loved one suffered injury because of a botched blood transfusion, seek assistance from a knowledgeable medical malpractice lawyer.