In this multicentre randomized study, we were unable to show that a gradual multilevel bundle strategy to prevent oversedation could significantly reduce mortality of severely ill ICU patients requiring mechanical ventilation. There were no significant differences between the two groups in in-hospital and 1-year mortality. However, oversedation prevention resulted in significantly less use of intravenous midazolam and propofol, and significantly earlier weaning initiation and extubation. Last, the numerous limitations including early termination of the trial weaken the result interpretation.
We chose an OSP strategy centred on the identification of patients’ level of agitation, ventilator asynchrony, and pain, on a 4-level scale, with gradual on-demand responses, frequent reassessments, and promotion of alternatives to continuous around-the-clock intravenous hypnotics (midazolam or propofol) infusion. Interestingly, in the OSP algorithm, interventions were titrated only on patients’ needs to control pain, agitation, and ventilator asynchrony (except in the level 3), with no attempt to alter consciousness, even slightly, as a specific goal. Accordingly, the OSP strategy did not include the use of any sedation scale. Cumulative dosages of propofol and midazolam were significantly lower in the OPS group. We did not use dexmedetomidine as an alternative to continuous intravenous hypnotics because at the time of study design, the very recent commercialization of dexmedetomidine in France precluded homogeneous and optimal use among the participating centres [22,23,24,25].
Our study was unable to show that the OSP strategy reduced mortality compared to standard care in critically ill patients. Furthermore, mortality was high in the study population. More than 40% of the patients had died at 3 months and almost 60% at 1 year. These mortality rates were much higher than anticipated at study design and higher than those reported in previous studies on light sedation strategies [1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13]. This high mortality very likely reflects the severity of the acute conditions at ICU admission, as suggested by a SAPS II score higher than commonly reported in trials on sedation [5, 8, 10, 25, 26]. Old age and the low rate of post-operative admissions both could have contributed to the high SAPS II. Similarly, the percentage of patients on vasoactive drugs at randomization was high.
The severity of the acute conditions of our study population compared to previous studies suggests the inclusion of patients in real-life conditions. Demonstration of the positive impact of an intervention, such as a strategy to prevent oversedation, might be difficult in patients with particularly severe admission conditions and requires a larger sample of patients. In our study, less than half of the planned included patients were finally enrolled which undoubtedly makes the trial underpowered. Furthermore, the planned inclusion number was based on a mortality rate of 22% in the control group. There is such a high difference between the a priori postulated mortality rate in the control group, and the a posteriori observed one (which is much closer to 50%) that even in case we would have been able to recruit the planned 2720 patients, the real power of the trial would have been much lower than the 90% nominal power.
Despite the severity of the conditions of the study patients, and the above limitations, the OSP strategy resulted in significantly shorter mechanical ventilation duration. Similar findings have been observed in previous randomized studies on light sedation in less severely ill ICU populations. This finding is important, as physicians may be reluctant to adopt a light sedation strategy among the most severely ill patients. Indeed, as agitation and device removal may be perceived as particularly dangerous in this population, physicians may favour continuous intravenous sedation. The present trial did not show that oversedation prevention was associated with lower mortality, but it showed that it was associated with secondary benefits of faster weaning and extubation.
One explanation for shorter mechanical ventilation duration is provided in our study by a significantly shorter time to first spontaneous breathing trial. An adequate consciousness level is among the prerequisite criteria for physicians to initiate the weaning process leading to extubation, along with other criteria including absence of high-grade fever, low oxygen, positive expiratory end-pressure, and vasoactive drug needs . A light sedation strategy might promote preservation of consciousness or early return to consciousness when other weaning criteria are met .
Study limitations The numerous limitations including the early termination and associated lack of power weaken the results.
We did not design a weaning protocol in the control group; patients were treated according to usual practice in the participating ICUs. Unfortunately, we do not have any data showing that the French ICU weaning guidelines were applied similarly in both groups. Physicians in the participating study centres might have unconsciously changed their practice over the study period, with a progressive implementation of some aspects of the OSP strategy in control patients, further reducing the difference in sedation practices between the two groups. Insufficient compliance with the relatively novel multilevel gradual intervention might also have reduced the difference in sedation practices between the two groups. A cluster randomization at the ICU level would have limited those group contamination issues; however, the risk of a selection bias associated with such a design was deemed greater and led us to choose an individual randomization scheme [29,30,31,32]. This point remains a strong limitation to interpret the secondary endpoints in this non-blinded study.
The gap between estimated 90-day mortality used for the sample size calculation and the higher mortality rates observed also represents an important limitation study further reducing the study power.
Another limitation is that we did not use a sedation scale to measure the effect of the OSP strategy on consciousness. This option was deliberately selected to avoid that clinicians would try to titrate IV sedatives to reach the common target of slightly altered consciousness in the intervention group, in which no specific alteration of consciousness should be targeted. Unfortunately, the surrogate markers for consciousness level used in the study (amounts of sedatives used, single daily assessment of consciousness base on a yes/no single-item scale, MV duration, etc.) all have their own limitations.
The oversedation prevention resulted in significantly less use of intravenous midazolam and propofol. Measuring doses of drug and showing a reduction in doses administered is not the same thing, but the increased rate of awake patients in the OSP group may imperfectly reflect the goal. Unfortunately, an explicit recording of implementation of multiple components of the OSP protocol could not be carried out in this large trial.
Of note, the lack of details regarding the previous alcohol consumption and the grouping within the large psychotropic category of medications with various mechanisms of action and side effects (benzodiazepines, neuroleptics, antidepressants, etc.) albeit pragmatic also represents a potential methodological limitation.
In summary, in this prospective randomized trial in severe critically ill patients requiring mechanical ventilation with early termination and under powering, we were unable to show that oversedation prevention significantly reduces mortality. However, it resulted in a significantly lower use of intravenous hypnotics, earlier time to spontaneous breathing trial, and reduced duration of mechanical ventilation. These last results should be interpreted with precaution regarding the several limitations of the trial including the early termination.