The objective of the MAS evidence review was to conduct a systematic review of the available evidence on the safety, effectiveness, durability and cost–effectiveness of endovascular radiofrequency ablation (RFA) for the treatment of primary symptomatic varicose veins.
The Ontario Health Technology Advisory Committee (OHTAC) met on August 26th, 2010 to review the safety, effectiveness, durability, and cost-effectiveness of RFA for the treatment of primary symptomatic varicose veins based on an evidence-based review by the Medical Advisory Secretariat (MAS).
Varicose veins (VV) are tortuous, twisted, or elongated veins. This can be due to existing (inherited) valve dysfunction or decreased vein elasticity (primary venous reflux) or valve damage from prior thrombotic events (secondary venous reflux). The end result is pooling of blood in the veins, increased venous pressure and subsequent vein enlargement. As a result of high venous pressure, branch vessels balloon out leading to varicosities (varicose veins).
Symptoms typically affect the lower extremities and include (but are not limited to): aching, swelling, throbbing, night cramps, restless legs, leg fatigue, itching and burning. Left untreated, venous reflux tends to be progressive, often leading to chronic venous insufficiency (CVI). A number of complications are associated with untreated venous reflux: including superficial thrombophlebitis as well as variceal rupture and haemorrhage. CVI often results in chronic skin changes referred to as stasis dermatitis. Stasis dermatitis is comprised of a spectrum of cutaneous abnormalities including edema, hyperpigmentation, eczema, lipodermatosclerosis and stasis ulceration. Ulceration represents the disease end point for severe CVI. CVI is associated with a reduced quality of life particularly in relation to pain, physical function and mobility. In severe cases, VV with ulcers, QOL has been rated to be as bad or worse as other chronic diseases such as back pain and arthritis.
Lower limb VV is a very common disease affecting adults – estimated to be the 7th most common reason for physician referral in the US. There is a very strong familial predisposition to VV. The risk in offspring is 90% if both parents affected, 20% when neither affected and 45% (25% boys, 62% girls) if one parent affected. The prevalence of VV worldwide ranges from 5% to 15% among men and 3% to 29% among women varying by the age, gender and ethnicity of the study population, survey methods and disease definition and measurement. The annual incidence of VV estimated from the Framingham Study was reported to be 2.6% among women and 1.9% among men and did not vary within the age range (40-89 years) studied.
Approximately 1% of the adult population has a stasis ulcer of venous origin at any one time with 4% at risk. The majority of leg ulcer patients are elderly with simple superficial vein reflux. Stasis ulcers are often lengthy medical problems and can last for several years and, despite effective compression therapy and multilayer bandaging are associated with high recurrence rates. Recent trials involving surgical treatment of superficial vein reflux have resulted in healing and significantly reduced recurrence rates.
Endovascular Radiofrequency Ablation for Varicose Veins
RFA is an image-guided minimally invasive treatment alternative to surgical stripping of superficial venous reflux. RFA does not require an operating room or general anaesthesia and has been performed in an outpatient setting by a variety of medical specialties including surgeons and interventional radiologists. Rather than surgically removing the vein, RFA works by destroying or ablating the refluxing vein segment using thermal energy delivered through a radiofrequency catheter.
Prior to performing RFA, color-flow Doppler ultrasonography is used to confirm and map all areas of venous reflux to devise a safe and effective treatment plan. The RFA procedure involves the introduction of a guide wire into the target vein under ultrasound guidance followed by the insertion of an introducer sheath through which the RFA catheter is advanced. Once satisfactory positioning has been confirmed with ultrasound, a tumescent anaesthetic solution is injected into the soft tissue surrounding the target vein along its entire length. This serves to anaesthetize the vein, insulate the heat from damaging adjacent structures, including nerves and skin and compresses the vein increasing optimal contact of the vessel wall with the electrodes or expanded prongs of the RF device. The RF generator is then activated and the catheter is slowly pulled along the length of the vein. At the end of the procedure, hemostasis is then achieved by applying pressure to the vein entry point.
Adequate and proper compression stockings and bandages are applied after the procedure to reduce the risk of venous thromboembolism and to reduce postoperative bruising and tenderness. Patients are encouraged to walk immediately after the procedure. Follow-up protocols vary, with most patients returning 1 to 3 weeks later for an initial follow-up visit. At this point, the initial clinical result is assessed and occlusion of the treated vessels is confirmed with ultrasound. Patients often have a second follow-up visit 1 to 3 months following RFA at which time clinical evaluation and ultrasound are repeated. If required, additional procedures such as phlebectomy or sclerotherapy may be performed during the RFA procedure or at any follow-up visits.
The Closure System® radiofrequency generator for endovascular thermal ablation of varicose veins was approved by Health Canada as a class 3 device in March 2005, registered under medical device license 67865. The RFA intravascular catheter was approved by Health Canada in November 2007 for the ClosureFast catheter, registered under medical device license 16574. The Closure System® also has regulatory approvals in Australia, Europe (CE Mark) and the United States (FDA clearance). In Ontario, RFA is not an insured service and is currently being introduced in private clinics.
The MAS evidence–based review was performed to support public financing decisions. The literature search was performed on March 9th, 2010 using standard bibliographic databases for studies published up until March, 2010.
- English language full-reports and human studies
- Original reports with defined study methodology
- Reports including standardized measurements on outcome events such as technical success, safety, effectiveness, durability, quality of life or patient satisfaction
- Reports involving RFA for varicose veins (great or small saphenous veins)
- Randomized controlled trials (RCTs), systematic reviews and meta-analyses
- Cohort and controlled clinical studies involving ≥ 1 month ultrasound imaging follow-up
- Non systematic reviews, letters, comments and editorials
- Reports not involving outcome events such as safety, effectiveness, durability, or patient satisfaction following an intervention with RFA
- Reports not involving interventions with RFA for varicose veins
- Pilot studies or studies with small samples (< 50 subjects)
Summary of Findings
The MAS evidence search on the safety and effectiveness of endovascular RFA ablation of VV identified the following evidence: three HTAs, nine systematic reviews, eight randomized controlled trials (five comparing RFA to surgery and three comparing RFA to ELT), five controlled clinical trials and fourteen cohort case series (four were multicenter registry studies).
The majority (12/14) of the cohort studies (3,664) evaluating RFA for VV involved treatment with first generation RFA catheters and the great saphenous vein (GSV) was the target vessel in all studies. Major adverse events were uncommonly reported and the overall pooled major adverse event rate extracted from the cohort studies was 2.9% (105/3,664). Imaging defined treatment effectiveness of vein closure rates were variable ranging from 68% to 96% at post-operative follow-up. Vein ablation rate at 6-month follow-up was reported in four studies with rates close to 90%. Only one study reported vein closure rates at 2 years but only for a minority of the eligible cases. The two studies reporting on RFA ablation with the more efficient second generation catheters involved better follow-up and reported higher ablation rates close to 100% at 6-month follow-up with no major adverse events. A large prospective registry trial that recruited over 1,000 patients at thirty-four largely European centers reported on treatment success in six overlapping reports on selected patient subgroups at various follow-up points up to 5 year. However, the follow-up for eligible recruited patients at all time points was low resulting in inadequate estimates of longer term treatment efficacy.
The overall level of evidence of randomized trials comparing RFA with surgical ligation and vein stripping (n = 5) was graded as low to moderate. In all trials RFA ablation was performed with first generation catheters in the setting of the operating theatre under general anaesthesia, usually without tumescent anaesthesia. Procedure times were significantly longer after RFA than surgery. Recovery after treatment was significantly quicker after RFA both with return to usual activity and return to work with on average a one week less of work loss. Major adverse events occurring after surgery were higher [(1.8% (n=4) vs. 0.4% (n = 1) than after RFA but not significantly. Treatment effectiveness measured by imaging defined vein absence or vein closure was comparable in the two treatment groups. Significant improvements in vein symptoms and quality of life over baseline were reported for both treatment groups. Improvements in these outcomes were significantly greater in the RFA group than the surgery group in the peri-operative period but not in later follow-up. Follow-up in these trials was inadequate to evaluate longer term recurrence for either treatment. Patient satisfaction was reported to be high for both treatments but was higher for RFA.
The studies comparing endovascular treatment approaches for VV (RFA and ELT) were more limited. Three RCT studies compared RFA (two with the second generation catheter) with ELT but mainly focused on peri-procedural outcomes such as pain, complications and recovery. Vein ablation rates were not evaluated in the trials, except for one small trial involving bilateral VV. Pain responses in patients undergoing ablation were extremely variable and up to 2 weeks, mean pain levels were significantly less with RFA than ELT ablation but differences were not significant at one month. Recovery, evaluated as return to usual activity or return to work, however, was similar in the treatment groups. Vein symptom and QOL improvements were improved in both groups but were significantly better in the RFA group than the ELT group at 2 weeks, but not at one month. Vein ablation rates were evaluated in several controlled clinical studies comparing the treatments between centers or within centers between individuals or over time. Comparisons in these studies were inconsistent with vein ablation rates for RFA reported to be similar to, higher than and lower than those with ELT.
RFA and surgical vein stripping, the main comparator reimbursed by the public system, are comparable in clinical benefits. Hence a cost-analysis was conducted to identify the differences in resources and costs between both procedures and a budgetary impact analysis (BIA) was conducted to project costs over a 5- year period in the province of Ontario. The target population of this economic analysis was patients with symptomatic varicose veins and the primary analytic perspective was that of the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.
The average case cost (based on Ontario hospital costs and medical resources) for surgical vein stripping was estimated to be $1,799. In order to calculate a procedural cost for RFA it was assumed that the hospital cost and physician labour fees, excluding anaesthesia and surgical assistance, were the same as vein stripping surgery. The manufacturer also provided details on the generator with a capital cost of $27,500 and a lifespan of 5 years and the disposables (catheter, sheath, guidewire) with a cost of $673 per case. The average case cost for RFA was therefore estimated to be $1,356. One-way sensitivity analysis was also conducted with hospital cost of RFA varied to 60% that of vein stripping surgery (average cost per case = $627.08) to calculate an impact to the province.
Historical volumes of vein stripping surgeries in Ontario were used to project surgeries in a linear fashion up to five years into the future. Volumes for RFA and ELT were calculated based on share capture from the surgery market based on discussion with clinical expert opinion and existing private data based on discussion with the manufacturer. RFA is expected to compete with ELT and capture some of the market. If ELT is reimbursed by the public sector then numbers will continue to increase from previous private data and share capture from the conventional surgical treatment market. Therefore, RFA cases will also increase since it will be capturing a share of the ELT market. A budget impact to the province was then calculated by multiplying volumes by the cost of the procedure.
RFA is comparable in clinical benefits to vein stripping surgery. It has the extra upfront cost of the generator and cost per case for disposables but does not require an operating theater, anaesthetist or surgical assistant fees. The impact to the province is expected to be 5 M by Year 5 with the introduction of new ELT and RFA image guided endovascular technologies and existing surgery for varicose veins.
The conclusions on the comparative outcomes between endovascular RFA and surgical ligation and saphenous vein stripping and between endovascular RFA and laser ablation for VV treatment are summarized in the table below (ES Table 1).
The outcomes of the evidence-based review on these treatments for VV based on different perspectives are summarized below:
RFA First versus Second Generation Catheters and Segmental Ablation
- Ablation with second generation catheters and segmental ablation offered technical advantages with improved ease and significant decreases in procedure time. RFA ablation with second generation catheters is also no longer restricted to smaller (< 12 mm diameter) saphenous veins.
- The safety profile with the new device and method of energy delivery is as good as or improved over the first generation device. No major adverse events were reported in two multicenter prospective cohort studies in 6 month follow-up with over 500 patients. Post-operative complications such as bruising and pain were significantly less with RFA ablation with second generation catheters than ELT in two RCT trials.
- RFA treatment with second generation catheters has ablation rates that are higher than with first generation catheters and are more comparable with the consistently high rates of ELT.
Endovascular RFA versus Surgery
- RFA has a quicker recovery attributable to decreased pain and lower minor complications.
- RFA, in the short term was comparable to surgery in treatment effectiveness as assessed by imaging defined anatomic outcomes such as vein closure, flow or reflux. Other treatment outcomes such as symptomatic relief and HRQOL were significantly improved in both groups and between group differences in the early peri-operative period were likely influenced by pain experiences.
- Longer term follow-up was inadequate to evaluate recurrence after either treatment.
- Patient satisfaction was high after both treatments but was higher for RFA than surgery.
Endovascular RFA versus ELT
- RFA has significantly less post-operative pain than ELT but differences were not significant when pain was adjusted for analgesic use and pain differences between groups did not persist at 1 month follow-up.
- Treatment effectiveness, measured as symptom relief and QOL improvement were similar between the endovascular treatments in the short term (within 1 month)
- Treatment effectiveness measured as imaging defined vein ablation was not measured in any RCT trials (only for bilateral VV disease) and results were inconsistently reported in observational trials.
- Longer term follow-up was not available to assess recurrence after either treatment.
System Outcomes – RFA Replacing Surgery or Competing with ELT
- RFA may offer system advantages in that the treatment can be offered by several medical specialties in outpatient settings and because it does not require an operating theatre or general anaesthesia.
- The treatment may result in decanting of patients from OR with decreased pre-surgical investigations, demand on anaesthetists’ time, hospital stay and wait time for VV treatment. It may also provide more reliable outpatient scheduling.
- Procedure costs may be less for endovascular approaches than surgery but the budget impact may be greater with insurance of RFA because of the transfer of cases from the private market to the public payer system.
- Competition between RFA and ELT endovascular approaches is likely to continue to stimulate innovation and technical changes to advance patient care and result in competitive pricing.