Guidelines for VTE Prophylaxis in Medical Patient Populations, Including Stroke

Review: VTE prophylaxis guidelines

Background: Pharmacologic interventions with heparin or related drugs and mechanical interventions have become the standard of care in the prevention of venous thromboembolism (VTE) in hospitalized patients. The studies evaluating the efficacy of these therapies in relation to each other have become more robust over the last decade. Despite these advances, however, there remains controversy over meaningful outcomes and how the results should be applied to different patient populations.

Many studies address the issue of VTE prophylaxis using surrogate outcomes, such as asymptomatic deep venous thromboembolism (DVT), given the low incidence of significant clinical outcomes, e.g., symptomatic DVT, pulmonary embolus (PE), or mortality. There have been few large, prospective, randomized trials that show a statistically significant benefit of pharmacologic or mechanical VTE prophylaxis in a purely medical population when looking for these meaningful outcomes.

Significant bleeding and thrombocytopenia are the most common risks identified in pharmacologic intervention studies against which the benefits have to be weighed. Stroke patients are one medical population in which bleeding risk has been of particular concern.

Guideline update: In November 2011, the American College of Physicians (ACP) published new guidelines for medical patients regarding VTE prophylaxis.1 These evidence-based guidelines were not based on new trial data, but rather a review of previous studies looking at only medical patients; they did not consider asymptomatic DVT as a significant outcome.

The new guidelines recommend that all hospitalized medical patients, including stroke patients, be evaluated for risk of VTE and bleeding, which is not a change from any previous standard. Routine use of VTE prophylaxis is not recommended, and prophylactic pharmacologic therapy with heparin or related drugs should only be instituted if the benefit in a decreased incidence of VTE outweighs the risk of bleeding in an individual patient. The use of mechanical prophylaxis with graduated compression stockings is not recommended, given the risk of lower extremity skin damage and a lack of clear benefit.

Last month, the American College of Chest Physicians (ACCP) followed suit in their 9th edition of clinical practice guidelines regarding VTE prevention in non-surgical patients.2 The ACC recommends the use of heparin or related drugs for VTE prophylaxis for medical patients at increased risk of thrombosis, but recommends against pharmacologic VTE prophylaxis in patients at low risk. Patients at high risk of bleeding with a concomitant high risk of VTE are recommended to use mechanical prophylaxis until the bleeding risk diminishes. These guidelines go a step further and provide parameters defining both high risk of VTE and high risk of bleeding, making them a very clinically useful tool. Neither guideline indicates a prefererence for pharmacologic prophylaxis.

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