Giving patients their own blood during operations may offer peace of mind, but it may not be worth the cost to the health care system.
A UCLA study found this common practice is much more costly than relying on ordinary donated blood because of the extra record-keeping required and because much of what is stored is ultimately thrown away.
Patients began storing their own blood before operations in response to the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s to avoid HIV and other viruses.
Since then, the blood supply has grown much safer, and the risk of getting HIV or any other virus during a transfusion is minuscule. Nonetheless, doctors still frequently ask patients to give blood before surgery in case it's needed.
Dr. Jeff Etchason and colleagues analyzed the cost of the practice, known as autologous donations, at UCLA Medical Center in 1992. Their report is published today in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Although autologous blood does occasionally save lives by preventing infections, one pint costs a hospital $198, or $48 more than an ordinary donation, the researchers calculated.
The costs add up because people frequently store more blood than is actually used, just to be safe.
Patients are typically not charged extra to have their blood stored, but such practices eventually contribute to higher medical costs for everyone.
The cost to the health care system varies depending on the operation and how much blood it requires.
"From a societal perspective, it does not represent a very efficient use of scarce medical resources," Etchason said.
However, an editorial in the journal defended the practice.
"The peace of mind that comes from having control over the risk of AIDS and other potentially harmful effects of transfusion is immeasurable, but it is nonetheless important to the patient undergoing surgery," wrote Drs. Cynthia J. Rutherford and Harold S. Kaplan of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.