Ultrasound availability in the evaluation of ectopic pregnancy in the ED: comparison of quality and cost-effectiveness with different approaches

W E Durston, M L Carl, W Guerra, A Eaton, L M Ackerson
American Journal of Emergency Medicine 2000, 18 (4): 408-17
The liberal use of ultrasonography has been advocated in patients with first trimester cramping or bleeding to avoid misdiagnosis of ectopic pregnancy in the emergency department (ED). The cost-effectiveness of different approaches to ultrasound availability has not been previously reported. In this study, we investigated measures of quality and cost-effectiveness in detecting ectopic pregnancy in the ED over a 6-year period, divided into three approximately equal epochs with three distinct approaches to ultrasound availability. The study retrospectively identified 120 cases of ectopic pregnancy seen in the ED over 6 years. There was significant improvement in the percentage of patients with ectopic pregnancy who were documented to have absence of intrauterine pregnancy (IUP) at the first visit from 76% during Epoch 1, when there was limited availability of ultrasound through medical imaging (MI Sono), to 88% in Epoch 2, when MI Sono was readily available, to 96% in Epoch 3, when both MI Sono and ultrasound by emergency physicians (ED Sono) were readily available (P = .02). The estimated number of MI Sonos ordered by emergency physicians in patients at risk for ectopic pregnancy increased from 5.2 per ectopic pregnancy in Epoch 1 to 11.8 per ectopic pregnancy in Epoch 2, and declined to 5.5 per ectopic pregnancy in Epoch 3, when 19.9 ED Sonos per ectopic pregnancy were also done. The cost of ED Sono in Epoch 3 was more than offset by savings from avoiding calling in ultrasound technicians after regular medical imaging department hours. The specificity of ED Sono in ruling in an IUP was 100% (95% CI 98.3 to 100%), but analysis of secondary quality indicators reflecting times from first ED visit to treatment in Epoch 3 raised the possibility that an adnexal mass or signs of tubal rupture may have been missed on some ED Sonos. We conclude that increased availability of ultrasonography leads to improved quality in the detection of ectopic pregnancy in the ED, but at the expense of a disproportionate increase in the number of ultrasound studies done per ectopic pregnancy detected. Our study suggests that the most cost-effective strategy is for emergency physicians to screen all patients with first trimester cramping and bleeding with ED Sonos, and to obtain MI Sonos at the time of the initial ED visit in all cases in which the ED Sono is indeterminate or shows no IUP.

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