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Reducing The Use Of CT Scans In Children

Well, this is satisfying. Over the years, in our ER we have mirrored the nationwide trend and have significantly increased the utilization of CT scans across the board. The reasons are manifold. Some cite malpractice risks, and indeed in our large group we have had one lawsuit for a pediatric head injury and another for a missed appendicitis which probably did contribute. But, in my opinion, there have been many other drivers of the increased use. For one, CTs have gotten way, way better over the last 15 years, which quite simply has made them a better diagnostic tool. They’ve also gotten way faster. As the facilities have invested in CT scanners, they have increased their capacity and increased their staffing, so the barriers to their use have rapidly diminished. I am so old that I remember when ordering a CT involved calling a radiologist and getting their approval! No more of that, I can tell you.

But a couple of years ago, we really started paying attention (perhaps belatedly) to the risks of increased exposure to radiation, especially for kids. And at that point, we began a concerted effort to reduce the use of CT scans in children. I pulled the numbers today, and here are the results:


(patients <14 y/o, all types of CT scans)

A 40% reduction from the peak utilization. Not too shabby. We were at about the national average at our peak — studies show that CT scans were ordered about 6% of the time for pediatric ED visits. How did we make the change? Mostly by paying attention to it and talking about it a lot to our medical staff. We made it a journal club, we presented it multiple times at our department meetings. This is, by the way, a pretty significant commitment of limited resources, since we typically have only about 2 hours of clinical education time with our docs per month, and every time we brought it up, it was at the expense of some other topic. We also developed pediatric abdominal pain algorithms which utilized ultrasound and surgical consultation above CT scanning, and we emphasized the CT-sparing clinical decision-making rules for head injury.

Are we still “too high”? I don’t know, because I don’t know where the optimum rate of CT is. It’s not zero, not at a trauma center, and sometimes there are belly pain cases that really do need imaging beyond ultrasound. I’m content with the relative reduction we have achieved so far, and hope we can improve on it as all the docs gain comfort with the radiation-minimizing technique. Some docs are always slow to change their ways, or persistently risk-averse (and test-happy). Maybe more data will come out to guide us in further reducing unnecessary scans.

Or, American medicine being what it is, maybe we’ll just wind up ordering more MRIs.

*This blog post was originally published at Movin' Meat*


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Richmond, VA – In an effort to simplify inpatient medical billing, one area hospitalist group has determined that “altered mental status” (ICD-9 780.97) is the most efficient code for use in any patient work up.

“When you enter a hospital, you’re bound to have some kind of mental status change,” said Dr. Fishbinder, co-partner of Area Hospitalists, PLLC. “Whether it’s confusion about where your room is located in relationship to the visitor’s parking structure, frustration with being woken up every hour or two to check your vital signs, or just plain old fatigue from being sick, you are not thinking as clearly as before you were admitted. And that’s all the justification we need to order anything from drug and toxin screens, to blood cultures, brain MRIs, tagged red blood cell nuclear scans, or cardiac Holter monitoring. There really is no limit to what we can pursue with our tests.”

Common causes of mental status changes in the elderly include medicine-induced cognitive side effects, disorientation due to disruption in daily routines, age-related memory impairment, and urinary tract infections.

“The urinalysis is not a very exciting medical test,” stated Dr. Fishbinder. “It doesn’t matter that it’s cheap, fast, and most likely to provide an explanation for strange behavior in hospitalized patients. It’s really not as elegant as the testing involved in a chronic anemia or metabolic encephalopathy work up. I keep it in my back pocket in case all other tests are negative, including brain MRIs and PET scans.”

Nursing staff at Richmond Medical Hospital report that efforts to inform hospitalists about foul smelling urine have generally fallen on deaf ears. “I have tried to tell the hospitalists about cloudy or bloody urine that I see in patients who are undergoing extensive work ups for mental status changes,” reports nurse Sandy Anderson. “But they insist that ‘all urine smells bad’ and it’s really more of a red herring.”

Another nurse reports that delay in diagnosing urinary tract infections (while patients are scheduled for brain MRIs, nuclear scans, and biopsies) can lead to worsening symptoms which accelerate and expand testing. “Some of my patients are transferred to the ICU during the altered mental status work up,” states nurse Anita Misra. “The doctors seem to be very excited about the additional technology available to them in the intensive care setting. Between the central line placement, arterial blood gasses, and vast array of IV fluid and medication options, urosepsis is really an excellent entré into a whole new level of care.”

“As far as medicine-induced mental status changes are concerned,” added Dr. Fishbinder, “We’ve never seen a single case in the past 10 years. Today’s patients are incredibly resilient and can tolerate mixes of opioids, anti-depressants, anti-histamines, and benzodiazepines without any difficulty. We know this because most patients have been prescribed these cocktails and have been taking them for years.”

Patient family members have expressed gratitude for Dr. Fishbinder’s diagnostic process, and report that they are very pleased that he is doing everything in his power to “get to the bottom” of why their loved one isn’t as sharp as they used to be.

“I thought my mom was acting strange ever since she started taking stronger pain medicine for her arthritis,” says Nelly Hurtong, the daughter of one of Dr. Fishbinder’s inpatients. “But now I see that there are deeper reasons for her ‘altered mental status’ thanks to the brain MRI that showed some mild generalized atrophy.”

Hospital administrators praise Dr. Fishbinder as one of their top physicians. “He will do whatever it takes to figure out the true cause of patients’ cognitive impairments.” Says CEO, Daniel Griffiths. “And not only is that good medicine, it is great for our Press Ganey scores and our bottom line.”

As for the nursing staff, Griffiths offered a less glowing review. “It’s unfortunate that our nurses seem preoccupied with urine testing and medication reconciliation. I think it might be time for us to mandate further training to help them appreciate more of the medical nuances inherent in quality patient care.”

Dr. Fishbinder is in the process of creating a half-day seminar on ‘altered mental status in the inpatient setting,’ offering CME credits to physicians who enroll. Richmond Medical Hospital intends to sponsor Dr. Fishbinder’s course, and franchise it to other hospitals in the state, and ultimately nationally.

***

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