Despite the frequent interchangeability of Hgb (g/dL) and Hct (%) by a ratio of ~1:3, directly-measured blood Hgb levels may be preferred for assessing the need for blood transfusion for at least 3 reasons:
First, in contrast to the widely-used automated measurements of Hct, Hgb is not affected by conditions that affect the size of the RBCs or the mean corpuscular Hgb concentration (MCHC). This is because the Hct is not a direct measure of Hgb; rather it’s the proportion of blood occupied by RBCs which, in automated systems, is derived by multiplying the number of RBCs by the mean corpuscular volume (MCV).1-3
This may not be a significant issue when MCHC is normal, but when MCHC is abnormal, HCT may not accurately reflect the blood Hgb concentration. For example, in patients with hypochromic iron deficiency anemia with RBCs containing less hemoglobin (ie, low MCHC), the Hct may overestimate blood Hgb levels. Conversely in hereditary spherocytosis with its attendant low RBC volume and high MCHC, the Hct may underestimate Hgb levels.
Second, Hct results may also be more subject to technical factors in the lab. For example, blood at room temperature between 6-24 h may be associated with RBC swelling and increased Hct without any change in its Hgb concentration.4
Finally, national and international guidelines on blood transfusion generally target Hgb, not Hct results.5-7
For a related pearl, go to https://pearls4peers.com/2016/11/01/should-i-use-a-hemoglobin-level-of-7-or-8-gdl-as-a-threshold-for-blood-transfusion-in-my-hospitalized-patient.
- Tefferi A, Hanson CA, Inwards DJ. How to interpret and pursue an abnormal complete blood cell count in adults. Mayo Clin Proc 2005;80:923-36. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16007898
- Macdougall IC, Ritz E. The Normal Haematocrit Trial in dialysis patients with cardiac disease: are we any the less confused about target hemoglobin? Nephrol Dial Transplant 1998;13:3030-33. https://academic.oup.com/ndt/article-pdf/13/12/3030/9907456/3030.pdf
- Kelleher BP, Wall C, O’Broin SD. Haemoglobin, not haematocrit, should be the preferred parameter. Nephrol Dial Transplant 2001;16:1085-87. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11328933
- Hayuanta HH. Can hemoglobin-hematocrit relationship be used to assess hydration status? CDK-237/vol 43 no.2, th. 2016 http://www.kalbemed.com/Portals/6/20_237Opini-Can%20Hemoglobin-Hematocrit%20Relationship%20Be%20Used%20to%20Assess%20Hydration%20Status.pdf
- Blood transfusion. NICE guideline, November, 2015. https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng24/chapter/Recommendations#fresh-frozen-plasma-2 uk
- National Blood Authority: Australia. Patient blood management, November 2016. https://www.blood.gov.au/system/files/documents/nba-patient-blood-management-resource-guide-nov_2016_v3_sm_web_file.pdf
- Carson JL, Guyatt G, Heddle NM, et al. Clinical practice guidelines from the AAABB: red blood cell transfusion thresholds and storage. JAMA 2016; 316:2025-2035. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27732721
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There are many causes of low serum haptoglobin besides hemolysis, including1-4:
- Cirrhosis of the liver
- Disseminated ovarian carcinomatosis
- Pulmonary sarcoidosis
- Elevated estrogen states
- Repetitive physical exercise
- Blood transfusions
- Drugs (eg, oral contraceptives, chlorpromazine, indomethacin, isoniazid, nitrofurantoin, quinidine, and streptomycin)
- Iron deficiency anemia
- Megaloblastic anemia (by destruction of megaloblastic RBC precursors in the bone marrow)
- Congenital causes
Less well-known is that congenital haptoglobin deficiency (“anhaptoglobinemia”) may not be so rare in the general population at a prevalence of 1% among whites and 4% among African-Americans (>30% in blacks of West African origin)3. Measurement of serum hemopexin, another plasma protein that binds heme, may help distinguish between this condition and acquired hypohaptoglobinemia— in the absence of hemolysis, hemopexin levels should remain unchanged3,5.
Final Fun Fact: Did you know that serum haptoglobin is often low during the first 6 months of life?
- Shih AWY, McFarane A, Verhovsek M. Haptoglobin testing in hemolysis: measurement and interpretation. Am J Hematol 2014;89: 443-47. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24809098
- Sritharan V, Bharadwaj VP, Venkatesan K, et al. Dapsone induced hypohaptoglobinemia in lepromatous leprosy patients. Internat J Leprosy 1981;307-310. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7198620
- Delanghe J, Langlois M, De Buyzere M, et al. Congenital anhaptoglobinemia versus acquired hypohaptoglobinemia. Blood 1998;9: 3524. http://www.bloodjournal.org/content/bloodjournal/91/9/3524.full.pdf
- Haptoglobin blood test. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003634.htm. Accessed August 6, 2017.
- Smith A, McCulloh RJ. Hemopexin and haptoglobin: allies against heme toxicity from hemoglobin not contenders. Front. Physiol 2015;6:187. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4485156/pdf/fphys-06-00187.pdf
In collaboration with Kris Olson, MD, MPH, Mass General Hospital, Boston, MA
Unlike its previous 2012 guidelines that recommended overlapping hemoglobin level triggers of 7 g/dL to 8 g/dL for most inpatients, the 2016 guidelines from AABB (formerly known as the American Association of Blood Banks) assigns 2 distinct tiers of hemoglobin transfusion triggers: 7 g/DL for hemodynamically stable adults, including those in intensive care units, and 8 g/dL for patients undergoing cardiac or orthopedic surgery or with preexisting cardiovascular disease1 , often defined as history of coronary artery disease, angina, myocardial infarction, stroke, congestive heart failure, or peripheral vascular disease2,3.
These recommendations are based on an analysis of over 30 randomized trials, taking into account the potential risks of withholding transfusions, including 30-day mortality, and myocardial infarction. The new 2-tier recommendation specifically excludes those with acute coronary syndrome, severe thrombocytopenia (patients treated for hematological or oncological reasons who are at risk of bleeding), and chronic transfusion-dependent anemia.
The guidelines also emphasize that good clinical practice dictates considering not only the hemoglobin level but the overall clinical context when considering blood transfusion in patients. These factors include alternative therapies to transfusion, rate of decline in hemoglobin level, intravascular volume status, dyspnea, exercise tolerance, light-headedness, chest pain considered of cardiac origin, hypotension, tachycardia unresponsive to fluid challenge, and patient preferences.
- Carson JL, Guyatt G, Heddle NW. Clinical practice guidelines from the AABB red blood cell transfusion thresholds and storage. JAMA. Doi:10.1001/jama.2016.9185. Published online October 12, 2016. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27732721
- Carson JL, Duff A, Poses RM, et al. Effect of anemia and cardiovascular disease on surgical mortality and morbidity. Lancet 1996;348:1055-60. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8874456
- Carson JL, Siever F, Cook DR, et al. Liberal versus restrictive blood transfusion strategy: 3-year survial and cause of death results from the FOCUS randomized controlled trial. Lancet 2015;385:1183-1189. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25499165