Can we check serum lithium levels less often without compromising patient safety?

Adrian H. Heald*, David Holland, Michael Stedman, Mark Davies, Chris J. Duff, Ceri Parfitt, Lewis Green, Jonathan Scargill, David Taylor, Anthony A. Fryer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Background Lithium is viewed as the first-line long-term treatment for prevention of relapse in people with bipolar disorder. Aims This study examined factors associated with the likelihood of maintaining serum lithium levels within the recommended range and explored whether the monitoring interval could be extended in some cases. Method We included 46 555 lithium rest requests in 3371 individuals over 7 years from three UK centres. Using lithium results in four categories (<0.4 mmol/L; 0.40-0.79 mmol/L; 0.80-0.99 mmol/L; ≥1.0 mmol/L), we determined the proportion of instances where lithium results remained stable or switched category on subsequent testing, considering the effects of age, duration of lithium therapy and testing history. Results For tests within the recommended range (0.40-0.99 mmol/L categories), 84.5% of subsequent tests remained within this range. Overall, 3 monthly testing was associated with 90% of lithium results remaining within range, compared with 85% at 6 monthly intervals. In cases where the lithium level in the previous 12 months was on target (0.40-0.79 mmol/L; British National Formulary/National Institute for Health and Care Excellence criteria), 90% remained within the target range at 6 months. Neither age nor duration of lithium therapy had any significant effect on lithium level stability. Levels within the 0.80-0.99 mmol/L category were linked to a higher probability of moving to the ≥1.0 mmol/L category (10%) compared with those in the 0.4-0.79 mmol/L group (2%), irrespective of testing frequency. Conclusion We propose that for those who achieve 12 months of lithium tests within the 0.40-0.79 mmol/L range, the interval between tests could increase to 6 months, irrespective of age. Where lithium levels are 0.80-0.99 mmol/L, the test interval should remain at 3 months. This could reduce lithium test numbers by 15% and costs by ~$0.4 m p.a.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere18
JournalBJPsych Open
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 17 Jan 2022


  • interval
  • Key words Lithium
  • level
  • safety
  • testing


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