JOURNAL ARTICLE

Increased emergency department computed tomography use for common chest symptoms without clear patient benefits

Andrew S Coco, David T O'Gurek
Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine: JABFM 2012, 25 (1): 33-41
22218622

OBJECTIVE: The aim of this study was to examine changes in the utilization of computed tomography (CT) in the evaluation of common chest symptoms and the rate of clinically significant diagnoses in emergency departments after 2004.

METHODS: This study analyzed the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, comparing 1997 to 1999 and 2005 to 2007. Set in US emergency departments, individuals older than 14 years old were eligible. The main outcome was proportion of common chest symptom-related visits (n = 17,098) associated with a CT order before 2000 and after 2004. Secondary outcomes were the proportion of these visits associated with a clinically significant diagnosis (pulmonary embolism, acute myocardial infarction, acute coronary syndrome, heart failure, pneumonia, and pleural effusion); an incidental diagnosis such as lung mass; and a clinically nonsignificant diagnosis such as nonspecific chest pain.

RESULTS: The proportion of common chest symptom-related visits associated with a CT order increased from 2.1% in 1997 to 1999 to 11.5% in 2005 to 2007 (P < .001), whereas the overall proportion of these visits associated with a clinically significant diagnosis decreased from 23.6% in 1997 to 1999 to 19.1% in 2005 to 2007 (P < .001).The rate of acute myocardial infarction diagnosis decreased from 6.6% to 3.3% (P < .001), whereas the rate of pulmonary embolism diagnosis did not change (0.33% vs. 0.47%; P = .24) from 1997 to 1999 to 2005 to 2007. The rate of incidental diagnoses did not change (0.13% vs. 0.17%; P = .69), whereas the rate of clinically nonsignificant diagnoses increased from 35.6% to 45.8% (P < .001) from 1997 to 1999 to 2005 to 2007.

CONCLUSIONS: CT ordering in emergency departments for the evaluation of common chest symptoms has increased dramatically without improving the rate of pulmonary embolism or other clinically significant diagnoses. Overuse of CT exposes patients to radiation and increases health care costs without any apparent diagnostic benefit.

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