Improving Outcomes, Improving Throughput, Radiology

Parting the SEA with the almighty H&P (& rapid MRI).

Necessity is the mother of invention, and sometimes, necessity comes in the form of hospital administration after a bad outcome. The authors of this paper, essentially developed a rapid MRI protocol for suspected spinal epidural abscess after “several cases of SEA associated with delayed diagnoses and poor outcomes prompted the chairs of the departments of emergency medicine, neurosciences, medicine, and radiology, and members of the Division of Healthcare Quality, to develop a multidisciplinary, clinical decision support tool and imaging protocol with the goal of facilitating early recognition of SEA.”

Wow. Talk about moving mountains. If you’re department is anything like mine, it takes hours to agree on where we’re getting take out from; I cant imagine adding in 4 entire departments into the lunch-ordering mix, let alone all agree on a protocol.

They took a relatively simple approach – if you have new or worsening back/neck pain AND a history of spinal abscess or current/recent (6 months) bacteremia, straight to MRI. I think the recent bacteremia often gets lost in the work up, so I appreciate that they put this front and center. If there is no recent spinal infection or recent/current bacteremia, They looked at risk factors- and I’ll make this simple and break it into 2 categories: people putting things where they dont belong (IVDA, vascular catheters, spinal procedures/injections) and the recurrently ill: ED visit or antimicrobial treatment within 30 days or an infectious process elsewhere. If yes, head to MRI.

I’m torn a bit on this- while I want to applaud the authors for not dwelling on a variety of risk factors that only a small portion of the population has – alcoholism, HIV, severe COPD, the undomiciled, HepC, oncology patients, transplant patients, etc; to say that this group is pretty much captured in the recent ED visit category probably misses a fair amount of patients on the first go-round. And here is the problem of trying to find a needle in the haystack – its hard to increase sensitivity and specificity without causing a delay at some other portion of the food chain – every stat MRI for so many additional back pain patients pushes out another patient and potentially extends at least 1 other patients length of stay.

However.

Despite an increase from 56 MRI’s in the 7 months pre-intervention to 147 in the 7 months post-intervention, yield for a positive MRI (defined solely as SEA and not vertebral osteomyelitis or infectious discitis), went from 16.1% to 17.7%.

On first glance, that’s not a lot of improvement in yield, but they screened 3 times as many patients without losing yield! This is rather impressive. However, they tripled their ED MRI rate, and, even though they drastically cut turn around times from 8.6 hours to 4.4 hours from time of MRI order to radiology report, thats still well over 4 hours for patients with back pain in a highly optimized system. And while yes, they missed fewer SEAs, they probably still have a good percentage that they missed on first visit – the various forms of immunocompromised – the severe COPDer on repeated steroid prescriptions, the HepC patient, the elderly – these are likely missed on the first go round.

I think this is a great step towards creating a policy towards SEA workup. It needs some refinement, but is the best I’ve seen yet. It poses some issues for smaller facilities that do not have 24/7 MRI capabilities, as well as for consultants (neurology essentially becoming a house officer for ID and neurosurgery), and poses a big time crunch for the ED (again, neurology took control of these cases once the decision to MRI was performed, which the hospitalists must be thankful for!). In the end, there is no such thing as zero miss, but Baystate, with this study, demonstrates that, at least for one day, the H&P is not dead.

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