By: 14 February 2014

Patients receiving the widely used anaesthesia drug etomidate for surgery may be at increased risk or mortality and cardiovascular events, according to a new study.
The study adds to safety concerns over etomidate’s use as an anaesthetic and sedative drug.

“There is accumulating evidence for an association between mortality and etomidate use, both in critically ill patients and now in [non-critically ill] patients undergoing noncardiac surgery,” according to an editorial by Drs Matthieu Legrand and Benoît Plaud of Paris-Diderot University.

The editorial, published in the journal Anesthesia & Analgesia, comments on a new study by Dr Ryu Komatsu of the Cleveland Clinic and colleagues, who assessed the risk of adverse outcomes in patients receiving etomidate for induction of anaesthesia.

Rates of death and cardiovascular events in about 2,100 patients receiving etomidate were compared to those in a matched group of 5,200 patients receiving induction with a different intravenous anaesthetic, propofol. All patients had severe but non-critical medical conditions – ASA physical status III or IV – and were undergoing noncardiac surgery.

The results showed a large increase in the risk of death within 30 days in the etomidate group. Patients receiving etomidate also had a 50 percent increase in the risk of major cardiovascular events.

Previous reports have suggested an increased risk of death in patients receiving etomidate in emergency situations or during critical illness, particularly sepsis. Subsequent randomised trials did not show an increased risk of death in critically ill patients receiving etomidate.

It’s unclear how etomidate, with its short-lasting effects, can affect patient outcomes several weeks later. Drs Legrand and Plaud suggest that it may represent a so-called butterfly effect, with “very small differences in the initial state of a physical system [making] a significant difference to the state at some later time.”

While noting that the new study has some important limitations, Drs Legrand and Plaud write, “These findings are of major importance in light of the high number of patients who potentially receive etomidate each year worldwide.” Large-scale studies will be needed to definitively establish the safety of etomidate.

A study in critically ill patients is already underway. Pending those results, the editorial authors conclude, “Since safe and efficient alternatives exist, a wise choice might certainly be the use of other anaesthetic agents for induction of anaesthesia.”