Thrombolytic Therapy in Unstable Patients with PE

Most of us would give strong consideration to giving thrombolytics to patients with massive pulmonary embolism (PE), which is in keeping with many guidelines. Some physicians remain reluctant to do so, often citing the lack of good evidence. It is true that large scale RCTs have not been done in this population. The authors of this recent retrospective study state:


There are no definitive trials that prove the value of thrombolytic therapy in unstable patients with pulmonary embolism. It is extremely remote that a randomized controlled trial will be performed in the future. We therefore analyzed the database of the Nationwide Inpatient Sample to test the hypothesis that thrombolytic therapy reduces case fatality rate in unstable patients with acute pulmonary embolism.

They demonstrate a striking difference in mortality when thrombolysis is given to unstable patients with PE, which is further reduced with the addition of a vena cava filter. ‘Unstable’ was defined as having a listed code for shock or ventilator dependence.

Associated comorbid conditions were more often present in those who did not receive thrombolytic therapy than in those who did. However in their discussion the authors add:


Although unstable patients who received thrombolytic therapy had fewer comorbid conditions than those who did not, this would not explain the difference in case fatality rate because unstable patients with a primary diagnosis of pulmonary embolism and none of the comorbid conditions…also showed a lower case fatality rate with thrombolytic therapy. Therefore, differences in comorbid conditions in this group were eliminated as a possible cause of the lower case fatality rate in unstable patients who received thrombolytic therapy.

They round off their conclusion with:


Despite the marked reduction of case fatality rate with thrombolytic therapy in unstable patients, only 30% of unstable patients received it, and the proportion receiving thrombolytic therapy is diminishing. On the basis of these data, thrombolytic therapy in combination with a vena cava filter in unstable patients with acute pulmonary embolism seems indicated.

Many thanks to Dr Daniel Horner for highlighting this paper.


BACKGROUND: Data are sparse and inconsistent regarding whether thrombolytic therapy reduces case fatality rate in unstable patients with acute pulmonary embolism. We tested the hypothesis that thrombolytic therapy reduces case fatality rate in such patients.

METHODS: In-hospital all-cause case fatality rate according to treatment was determined in unstable patients with pulmonary embolism who were discharged from short-stay hospitals throughout the United States from 1999 to 2008 by using data from the Nationwide Inpatient Sample. Unstable patients were in shock or ventilator dependent.

RESULTS: Among unstable patients with pulmonary embolism, 21,390 of 72,230 (30%) received thrombolytic therapy. In-hospital all-cause case fatality rate in unstable patients with thrombolytic therapy was 3105 of 21,390 (15%) versus 23,820 of 50,840 (47%) without thrombolytic therapy (P< .0001). All-cause case fatality rate in unstable patients with thrombolytic therapy plus a vena cava filter was 505 of 6630 (7.6%) versus 4260 of 12,850 (33%) with a filter alone (P<.0001). Case fatality rate attributable to pulmonary embolism in unstable patients was 820 of 9810 (8.4%) with thrombolytic therapy versus 1080 of 2600 (42%) with no thrombolytic therapy (P<.0001). Case fatality rate attributable to pulmonary embolism in unstable patients with thrombolytic therapy plus vena cava filter was 70 of 2590 (2.7%) versus 160 of 600 (27%) with a filter alone (P<.0001).


CONCLUSION: In-hospital all-cause case fatality rate and case fatality rate attributable to pulmonary embolism in unstable patients was lower in those who received thrombolytic therapy. Thrombolytic therapy resulted in a lower case fatality rate than using vena cava filters alone, and the combination resulted in an even lower case fatality rate. Thrombolytic therapy in combination with a vena cava filter in unstable patients with acute pulmonary embolism seems indicated.

Thrombolytic Therapy in Unstable Patients with Acute Pulmonary Embolism: Saves Lives but Underused
Am J Med. 2012 May;125(5):465-70