Venoarterial-Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation Without Routine Systemic Anticoagulation Decreases Adverse Events

Ann Thorac Surg. 2020 May;109(5):1458-1466. doi: 10.1016/j.athoracsur.2019.08.040. Epub 2019 Sep 26.


Background: Despite limited evidence, systemic anticoagulation is the current standard of care for patients supported on venoarterial-extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (VA-ECMO). We hypothesized that not anticoagulating patients on VA-ECMO would decrease complications.

Methods: We retrospectively reviewed adult patients supported on VA-ECMO at our institution. Patients were stratified based on anticoagulation strategy. The primary outcome was a composite of hemorrhagic and thrombotic complications. Secondary outcomes included blood product use, incidence of heparin-induced thrombocytopenia (HIT), hospital length of stay, and in-hospital mortality.

Results: From May 2011 through January 2018, there were 203 eligible patients supported on VA-ECMO, 35% (75 patients) were not anticoagulated. Overall complication rates were significantly lower for the no anticoagulation group (57% versus 76%; P = .007) including a trend toward fewer hemorrhagic complications (53% versus 63%; P = .178) without increased risk of thrombosis (13% versus 21%; P = .147). The anticoagulated group required more transfusions of packed red blood cells (12.8 versus 1.09; P = .002) and platelets (3.0 versus 1.3; P = .009) and showed a higher incidence of HIT (8% versus 0%; P = .015). No difference was found in overall mortality (72% versus 62%; P = .165).

Conclusions: The absence of routine systemic anticoagulation for patients supported on VA-ECMO is not associated with higher mortality, pump failure, or thrombotic complications. Patients had a lower requirement for blood product transfusions, and there was no incidence of HIT. Patients supported on VA-ECMO without other indications for anticoagulation can be treated without systemic anticoagulation during their VA-ECMO course.

MeSH terms

  • Anticoagulants
  • Blood Coagulation / physiology*
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / blood
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / surgery*
  • Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation / methods*
  • Female
  • Hospital Mortality / trends
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • New York / epidemiology
  • Postoperative Complications / epidemiology
  • Postoperative Complications / prevention & control*
  • Prognosis
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Survival Rate / trends


  • Anticoagulants