Liberal versus restrictive red blood cell transfusion strategy in sepsis or septic shock: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials

Crit Care. 2019 Jul 25;23(1):262. doi: 10.1186/s13054-019-2543-1.


Background: We assessed the effect of liberal versus restrictive red blood cell transfusion strategy on survival outcome in sepsis or septic shock by systematically reviewing the literature and synthesizing evidence from randomized controlled trials (RCTs).

Methods: We searched the MEDLINE, Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, and Web of Science databases. We included RCTs that compared mortality between a liberal transfusion strategy with a hemoglobin threshold of 9 or 10 g/dL and a restrictive transfusion strategy with a hemoglobin threshold of 7 g/dL in adults with sepsis or septic shock. Two investigators independently screened citations and conducted data extraction. The primary outcome was 28- or 30-day mortality. Secondary outcomes were 60- and 90-day mortality, use of life support at 28 days of admission, and number of patients transfused during their intensive care unit stay. DerSimonian-Laird random-effects models were used to report pooled odds ratios (ORs).

Results: A total of 1516 patients from three RCTs were included; 749 were randomly assigned to the liberal transfusion group and 767 to the restrictive strategy group. Within 28-30 days, 273 patients (36.4%) died in the liberal transfusion group, while 278 (36.2%) died in the restrictive transfusion group (pooled OR, 0.99; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.67-1.46). For the primary outcome, heterogeneity was observed among the studies (I2 = 61.0%, χ2 = 5.13, p = 0.08). For secondary outcomes, only two RCTs were included. There were no significant differences in secondary outcomes between the two groups.

Conclusions: We could not show any difference in 28- or 30-day mortality between the liberal and restrictive transfusion strategies in sepsis or septic shock patients by meta-analysis of RCTs. Our results should be interpreted with caution due to the existence of heterogeneity. As sepsis complicates a potentially wide range of underlying diseases, further trials in carefully selected populations are anticipated.

Trial registration: This present study was registered in the PROSPERO database (CRD42018108578).

Keywords: Hemoglobin; Mortality; Sepsis; Septic shock; Threshold; Transfusion.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Erythrocyte Transfusion / methods*
  • Erythrocyte Transfusion / standards*
  • Humans
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic / statistics & numerical data
  • Sepsis / mortality
  • Sepsis / physiopathology
  • Sepsis / therapy*
  • Treatment Outcome*