A cost analysis comparing erythropoietin and red cell transfusions in the treatment of anemia of prematurity

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November 1995


BACKGROUND: Anemia of prematurity is invariably observed in very low birth weight infants and may become symptomatic enough to be treated with packed red cell transfusions. Recently, treatment of this condition with recombinant human erythropoietin has been advocated. STUDY DESIGN AND METHODS: To compare the costs of training symptomatic anemia in hospitalized premature infants with transfusions alone or with erythropoietin plus red cell transfusions as needed, cost estimates were derived from local hospital and published cost data. Decision analysis and sensitivity analysis were applied to a “base case.” The base case was derived from results of a multicenter erythropoietin trial in the United States in which premature infants received 500 U of erythropoietin per kg of body weight each week. Because erythropoietin treatment began on average at 3 weeks of life, when infants were clinically stable, they had already received 3.5 red cell transfusions. During the 6-week treatment period, erythropoietin- treated infants received significantly fewer additional transfusions: a mean of 1.6 versus 1.1. RESULTS: The base-case cost in 1993 dollars for treating anemia in hospitalized premature infants with erythropoietin and transfusions was $1,326. This was nearly twice the cost of conventional treatment with transfusions alone ($721). If the 6-week treatment period alone is considered, erythropoietin is 3.6 times more costly: $840 versus $235. CONCLUSION: The largest available US study using erythropoietin to treat anemia in premature infants has demonstrated a small, but significant, reduction in transfusion needs. However, this study's cost data alone do not justify the widespread use of erythropoietin in premature infants. When this issue is probed in great depth, sensitivity analyses demonstrate that major reductions in erythropoietin's cost and/or improvements in its effectiveness quite possibly will make its use economically more attractive.