Understanding MPN Treatment Goals: What Is the Purpose of Phlebotomy?

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Topics include: Treatments and Understanding

As part of our Ask the Expert series, several Patient Power community members asked the question “What are the goals of phlebotomy, and when do you know it’s time to switch from phlebotomy to medication?” Dr. Joseph Scandura, an MPN expert from Weill Cornell Medicine, responds. Dr. Scandura explains the intricacies of how phlebotomy works and goes on to share indicators of when it’s time to move on from this therapy. 

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Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.

Andrew Schorr:

Here’s another one we got. This was actually asked by several people. Nick, Maggie and Philip all want to know related to phlebotomy. What are the goals of phlebotomy as a treatment, and how does it work, and when do you know when it’s time to switch from phlebotomy to medication?

Dr. Scandura:              

Right. So, I just came from a conferencethe end of the week and this is a topic of debate among physicians. When, whether to do phlebotomy? Whether phlebotomy therapy by itself is sufficient? What are the alternatives and when to make those decisions? I would say, I can tell you what my own feeling is. I feel that there is goodsupport to justify that, but to be totally honest, there are physicians who feel differently than I do and I don’t know if any of us can claim to be absolutely correct. But I think we can all agree that the goal of phlebotomy in the short term is basically to take cars off the highway. 

If you go back to the analogy of having too many cars on the highway causing thickened blood or this sludging from the red blood cells, this is a therapy specific to polycythemia vera, is that phlebotomy is just a very simple way of taking blood out of the system, taking cars off the highway. So, if you were to imagine and I frequently imagine this in New York City, is all of the sudden a third of the cars disappeared, it’d be a lot easier to get around. And so, that’s really what the goal of phlebotomy is, is to make it a little easier on your body to pump the blood around because there’s less resistance to having all that traffic in the vessels. How much? Go ahead, you had a question.

Andrew Schorr:          

I was just gonna say, but debateabout when to leave phlebotomy behind and have medication try to do the job when you prove one or others that may be coming. 

Dr. Scandura:              

So, I think the first goal is to get people under what would be considered control. So, an adequate level of traffic. And the numbers that are generally accepted by people in the field is having a hematocrit, that’s the portion of blood occupied by red blood cells, in males it’s below 45 percent and in females below 42 percent. Although we can all argue about that a little bit. I think people settle down around those numbers. 

When is too much? My personal feelingand this is where there isn’t great data, so you’re left with opinion, but my personal feeling is it depends a little bit on the patient, the convenience, and I find that people who are getting phlebotomy more than four or five times a year, it ends up being a real burden on them in terms of the amount of time that they’re having, poor control of their polycythemia vera, and the amount of time required for phlebotomy, and the amount of risk of things like iron deficiency which can cause symptoms. 

And then there’s some suggestion, I wouldn’t say great data, that maybe iron deficiency or repeated phlebotomy may be a risk in the long term, although I think that data is not very clear. My biggest determinant is patients, in my experience, just get a little fed up with getting phlebotomy when it gets above four, five, six times a year. 

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.

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Page last updated on May 24, 2019