The Intravenous Contrast Debate

Does intravenous contrast exposure increase the likelihood of developing renal insufficiency? The consensus opinion has been, generally, “yes”. However, evaluated under a closer lens, it is apparent some of these data come from high-dose use during angiography, from exposure to high-osmolar contrast material not routinely used in present day, and weak evidence from observational cohort studies.

The modern take is, increasingly, potentially “no”. However, it is virtually impossible to conclusively study the effect of intravenous contrast exposure. A prospective, controlled trial would require patients for whom a contrast study was believed important to their medical care be randomized to not receiving the indicated study, leading to all manner of potential harms. Therefore, we are reduced to looking backwards and comparing patients undergoing a contrasted study with those who do not.

This study is probably the best style of this type of evidence we are going to get. This is a propensity-matched analysis of patients undergoing contrast CT, non-contrast CT, and those not undergoing CT at all. Between 5,000 and 7,000 patients comprised each cohort, and these were stratified by baseline comorbidities, medications administered, illness severity indicators, and baseline renal function. After these various adjustments and weighting, the authors did not observe any effect on subsequent acute kidney injury relating to the administration of intravenous contrast – limited to patients with a creatinine of 4.0 mg/dL or below at baseline.

I think this is basically a reasonable conclusion, given the approach. There has been a fair bit of observational content regarding the risk of AKI after a contrast CT, but it is impossible separate the effect of contrast from the effects of the concurrent medical illness requiring the contrast CT. Every effort, of course, should be taken to minimize the use of advanced imaging – but in many instances, the morbidity of a missed diagnosis almost certainly outweighs the risk from intravenous contrast.

“Risk of Acute Kidney Injury After Intravenous Contrast Media Administration”

Chest X-Ray Utility in Syncope Lost in Translation

Again, straight out of the ACEP Daily News briefing: “Patients Presenting To ED With Complaints Of Syncope Should Still Undergo Routine Chest X-Rays, Research Suggests.”

This accurately reports the lead of the linked lay medical press article: “ED Patients With Syncope Should Undergo Chest X-Rays

But, it does not accurately reflect the authors’ discussion or conclusions regarding the utility of chest x-ray in syncope.

This is a retrospective evaluation of patients presenting with syncope and having a chest x-ray between 2003 and 2006 – a secondary analysis of the “Boston Syncope Criteria” study. There were 575 patients included in their analysis, 116 of whom had a defined adverse event within 30 days. Of the patients with positive findings on CXR, 15 of those 18 went on to have an adverse event – and I presume this association led to the perpetuation of this headline.

However, in the greater context: only 18 patients out of 575 had abnormal CXR findings, and even the vast majority of patients with adverse events had normal normal CXR findings. Then, an obvious selection bias should be clear with regard to obtaining CXR in those patients with the appropriate clinical indications – such as a suspicion for CHF or pneumonia. Patients go on to have adverse events because of the morbidity associated with concomitant clinical syndromes, of which the findings on CXR are only one small part of their evaluation.

In short, no, CXR is so low-yield it need not be performed anywhere remotely near routinely in syncope. It may be performed to evaluate a specific presenting symptom related to a syncopal event, but, if anything, these data should indicate it ought be performed less frequently.

“Utility of Chest Radiography in Emergency Department Patients Presenting with Syncope”

No CT Before LP?

There are a couple schools of thought regarding the need for a CT before an LP in the setting of infectious cerebral disease. The traditionalist school of thought: herniation. The pragmatist school: no big deal.

This article falls on the side of “no big deal”, which was probably the bias of the authors prior to its conception. These authors looked at comatose children in Malawi with suspected malaria. They analyzed the mortality outcomes of 1,827 patients, including 1,470 who received an LP and 357 who did not. Unadjusted mortality was higher in those who did not receive an LP, for which the authors attempted to adjust using propensity-based analyses, or by directly comparing those who had documented brain swelling on MRI or with papilledema. Using their admittedly small numbers in their retrospective cohort, they did not find any signals of harm relating to overall mortality or herniation precipitated by LP within 12 hours of procedure.

We probably will only ever get this level of evidence regarding the safety of LP in the critically ill with elevated ICP secondary to infection. Adverse events are rare, regardless, and it will always be difficult to shake out the confounding features of the malignant infection. I tend to agree with these authors that LP is safe in a stable patient without localizing neurologic signs, but it is entirely reasonable to take the opposite view.

“Safety of lumbar puncture in comatose children with clinical features of cerebral malaria”

The Impending Pulmonary Embolism Apocalypse

After many years of intense effort, our work in recognizing overdiagnosis and over-treatment of pulmonary embolism has been paying off. With the PERC, with adherence to evidence-based guidelines, and with a responsible approach to resource utilization, it is reasonable to suggest we’re making headway into over-investigating this diagnosis.

Prepare for all that hard work to be obliterated.

This is a prospective study of patients admitted to the hospital for syncope, evaluating each in a systematic fashion for the diagnosis of PE. Consecutive admissions with first-time syncope, who were not currently anticoagulated, underwent risk-stratification using Wells score, D-dimer testing if indicated, and ultimately either CT pulmonary angiograms or V/Q scanning. The top-line result, the big scary number you’re likely seeing circulating the medical and lay news: “among 560 patients hospitalized for a first-time fainting episode, one in six had a pulmonary embolism.”

Prepare for perpetual arguments with the admitting hospitalist for the next several eternities: “Could you go ahead an get a CTPA? You know, 17% of patients with syncope have PE.”

I’d like to tell you they’re wrong, and this study is somehow flawed, and you’ll be able to easily refute their assertions. Unfortunately, yes, they are wrong, and this study is flawed – but it won’t make it any easier to prevent the inevitable downstream overuse of CT.

The primary issue here is the almost certain inappropriate generalization of these results to dissimilar clinical settings. During the study period, there were 2,584 patients presenting to the Emergency Department with a final diagnosis of syncope. Of these, 1,867 were deemed to have an obvious or non-serious alternative cause of syncope and were discharged home. Thus, less than a third of ED visits for syncope were admitted, and the admission cohort is quite old – with a median age for admitted patients of 80 (IQR 72-85). There is incomplete descriptive data given regarding their comorbidities, but the authors state admission criteria included “severe coexisting conditions” and “a high probability of cardiac syncope on the basis of the Evaluation of Guidelines in Syncope Study score.” In short, their admission cohort is almost certainly older and more chronically ill than many practice settings.

Then, there are some befuddling features presented that would serve to inflate their overall prevalence estimate. A full 40.2% of those diagnosed with pulmonary embolism had “Clinical signs of deep-vein thrombosis” in their lower extremities, while 45.4% were tachypneic and 33.0% were tachycardic. These clinical features raise important questions regarding the adequacy of the Emergency Department evaluation; if many of these patients with syncope had symptoms suggestive of PE, why wasn’t the diagnosis made in ED? If even only the patients with clinical signs of DVT were evaluated prior to admission, those imaging studies would have had a yield for PE of 65%, and the prevalence number seen in this study would drop from 17.3% to 10.3%. Further evaluation of either patients with tachypnea or tachycardia might have been similarly high-yield, and further reduced the prevalence of PE in admitted patients.

Lastly, any discussion regarding a prevalence study requires mention of the gold-standard for diagnosis. CTPA confirmed the diagnosis of PE in 72 patients in this study. Of these, 24 involved a segmental or sub-segmental pulmonary artery – vessels in which false-positive results typically represent between one-quarter to one-half. Then, V/Q scanning was used to confirm the diagnosis of PE in 24 patients. Of these, the perfusion defect represented between 1% and 25% of the area of both lungs in 12 patients. I am not familiar with the rate of false-positives in the context of small perfusion defects on V/Q, but, undoubtedly a handful of these would be as well.  Add this to the inadequate ED evaluation of these patients, and suddenly we’re looking at only a handful of true-positive occult PE in this elderly, chronically ill cohort with syncope.

My view of this study is that its purported take-home point regarding the prevalence of PE in syncope is grossly misleading, yet this “one in six” statistic is almost guaranteed to go viral among those on the other side of the admission fence.  This study should not change practice – but I fear it almost certainly will.

“Prevalence of Pulmonary Embolism among Patients Hospitalized for Syncope”

Don’t CTPA With Your Gut Alone

Many institutions are starting to see roll-out of some sort of clinical decision-support for imaging utilization. Whether it be NEXUS, Canadian Head CT, or Wells for PE, there is plenty of literature documenting improved yield following implementation.

This retrospective evaluation looks at what happens when you don’t obey your new robot overlords – and perform CTPA for pulmonary embolism outside the guideline-recommended pathway. These authors looked specifically at non-compliance at the low end – patients with a Wells score ≤4 and performed with either no D-dimer ordered or a normal D-dimer.

During their 1.5 year review period, there were 2,993 examinations and 589 fell out as non-compliant. Most – 563 – of these were low-risk by Wells and omitted the D-dimer. Yield for these was 4.4% positivity, compared with 11.2% for exams ordered following the guidelines. This is probably even a high-end estimate for yield, because this includes 8 (1.4%) patients who had subsegmental or indeterminate PEs but were ultimately anticoagulated, some of whom were undoubtedly false positives. Additionally, none of the 26 patients that were low-risk with a normal D-dimer were diagnosed with PE.

Now, the Wells criteria are just one tool to help reinforce gestalt for PE, and it is a simple rule that does not incorporate all the various factors with positive and negative likelihood ratios for PE. That said, this study should reinforce that low-risk patients should mostly be given the chance to avoid imaging, and a D-dimer can be used appropriately to rule-out PE in those where PE is a real, but unlikely, consideration.

“Yield of CT Pulmonary angiography in the emergency Department When Providers Override evidence-based clinical Decision support”

When Is An Extremity CTA Necessary?

Here’s another piece regarding low-value testing in trauma, focusing on another topic: the use of CT angiograms for evaluation of extremity vascular injury.

This single-center, retrospective series looks at use of the extremity computed tomography angiogram in the setting of orthopedic and multi-system trauma. For what it’s worth, at least, there were only 275 scans identified during their 10-year study period. However, the bad news, of course: only 16 (6%) of those scans identified an injury requiring treatment.

Of greatest interest to those trying to eradicate low-value care comes the entirely unsurprising observation that 109 (40%) of patients received CTAs despite the absence of hard or soft signs of vascular injury – and all were normal. Additionally, all 16 cases requiring treatment had diminished or absent distal pulses on presentation.

I do anedcotally see the clinical examination being devalued, especially in trauma – it shouldn’t be!

“When are CT angiograms indicated for patients with lower extremity fractures? A review of 275 extremities”

All Glory to the Triple-Rule-Out

The conclusions of this study are either ludicrous, or rather significant; the authors are either daft, or prescient. It depends fundamentally on your position regarding the utility of CT coronary angiograms.

This article describes a retrospective review of all the “Triple-Rule-Out” angiograms performed at a single center, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, between 2006 and 2015. There were no specific circumstances under which the TRO were performed, but, grossly, the intended population were those who were otherwise being evaluated for an acute coronary syndrome but “was suspected of having additional noncoronary causes of chest pain”.

This “ACS-but-maybe-not” cohort totaled 1,192 patients over their 10 year study period. There were 970 (81.4%) with normal coronary arteries and no significant alternative diagnosis identified. The remaining, apparently to these authors, had “either a coronary or noncoronary diagnosis that could explain their presentation”, including 139 (11.7%) with moderate or severe coronary artery disease. In a mostly low-risk, troponin-negative population, it may be a stretch to attribute their symptoms to the coronary artery disease – but I digress.

The non-coronary diagnoses, the 106 (8.6%) with other findings, range from “important” to “not at all”. There were, at least, a handful of aortic dissections and pulmonary emboli picked up – though we can debate the likelihood of true positives based on pretest odds. However, these authors also credit the TRO with a range of sporadic findings as diverse as endocarditis, to diastasis of the sternum, and 24 cases of “aortic aneurysm” which were deemed important mostly because there were no priors for comparison.

The authors finally then promote TRO scans based on these noncoronary findings – stating that, if a traditional CTCA were performed, many of these diagnosis would likely be missed. Thus, the paradox. If you are already descending the circles of hell, and are using CTCA in the Emergency Department – then, yes, it is reasonable to suggest the TRO is a valid extension of the CTCA. Then again, if CTCA in the acute setting is already outside the scope of practice, and TRO is an abomination – carry on as if this study never existed.

“Diagnostic Yield of Triple-Rule-Out CT in an Emergency Setting”

The Extra Head CTs in Trauma, Estimated

In the world of academia and residency training, the spirited debate in trauma is usually regarding the merits of the “pan-scan” – and whether we can all agree it is probably safe to reduce costs and resource utilization by selective scanning. In community practice, it’s about picking up the needle in a haystack – and, hence, preventing the innumerable unnecessary CTs.

This is a retrospective review using electronic health record data to estimate the number of potentially unnecessary head CTs in the setting of trauma. These authors pulled records for all patients for whom a head CT was obtained, and for whom recorded EHR values suggested an encounter for trauma. This cohort was then evaluated for appropriateness of a CT by retrospectively determining the presence of high-risk or exclusion criteria for the Canadian CT Head Rule.

Among 27,240 patients extracted, 11,432 (42.0%) were “discordant” with the CCHR by structured EHR content. However, upon manual review of the chart narrative, the structured EHR content misclassified the CCHR recommendation 12.2% (95% CI 5.6-18.8%) of the time. Thus, the authors then estimate approximately 36.8% (95% CI 34.1-39.6%) of CT head for trauma in a community setting is inappropriate.

This is probably a reasonable research strategy, warts and all. Due to EHR limitations, they actually only filtered for 3 of the 5 high-risk criteria – basilar skull fracture and open skull fracture are such rare findings in their cohort the impact on overall results would be negligible. Then, Kaiser is probably more aggressive at minimizing CT use than the general community ED population, as routine quality improvement monitors individual and group rates of CT usage.

Bottom line: at least a third of head CTs for trauma in the community can probably be obviated by use of validated criteria.

“Computed Tomography Use for Adults with Head Injury: Describing Likely Avoidable ED Imaging based on the Canadian CT Head Rule”

An Oddly Dire Look at CIN after CTPA

This is an abstract that sucked me in – not because of the concept of the study – but because of its quoted incidence of adverse outcomes.  23.7% incidence of contrast-induced nephropathy following a CT pulmonary angiogram!  12.5% incidence of renal failure!  12.8% in-hospital mortality!

But, no.

The study itself is a comparison between three different prophylaxis methods for the prevention of CIN after CTPA – N-acetylcysteine plus normal saline, bicarbonate plus NS, or NS alone.  The simple summary: no difference between groups.

But, getting back to those dire numbers – roughly double the typically reported incidence of CIN.  They’re a mirage.  In reality, they assigned the primary outcome to all 26 (9.3%) of patients lost to follow-up.  Therefore, the starting point for their outcomes of interest are in a more reasonable range: 15.2% CIN, 2.6% renal failure, and 3.0% in-hospital mortality.

This, again, leads us back to the question: how much renal impairment is attributable to the CTPA, and how much to the underlying disease processes leading patients to require a CTPA in the first place?  Yield for PE on their CTPA cohort was 31.9%, which, in itself, elevates the comorbid burden of the population and could contribute to heart failure and renal injury.  There is no control group not receiving CTPA – for obvious clinical reasons – so it is hard to estimate the additive injury resulting directly from the CTPA.

But, at least, the big numbers displayed in their abstract a little misleading.

“The high risk of contrast induced nephropathy in patients with suspected pulmonary embolism despite three different prophylaxis: A randomized controlled trial”

Pan-Scans Don’t Save Lives

Humans are fallible.  We don’t always make good choices, and our patients – bless their hearts – can sometimes be time bombs wrapped in meat.  Logically, then, as many trauma services have concluded, the solution is to eliminate the weak link: don’t let the human chose which parts of the body to scan – just scan it all.

This is REACT-2, a randomised [sic] trial evaluating precisely the limits to human judgment in a resource-utilization versus immediacy context.  In this multi-center trial, adult trauma patients wth suspected serious injury were randomized to either imaging guided by clinical evaluation or total-body CT.  The primary outcome was in-hospital mortality, with secondary outcomes relating to timeliness of diagnosis, to mortality in other time frames, morbidity, and costs.

This was a massive undertaking, with 1,403 patients randomly assigned to one of the arms, with ~540 in each arm successfully allocated and included in their primary analysis.  Each cohort was well-matched on baseline characteristics, including all physiologic markers, although the Triage Revised Trauma Score was slightly lower (worse) for the total-body CT group.  The results, in most concise form, weakly favor selective scanning.  There was no difference in mortality nor complications nor length-of-stay nor virtually any reliable secondary outcome.  Costs, as measured in European terms, were no different, despite the few scans obviated.  Time-to-diagnosis was slightly faster in the total-body CT group, owing to skipping initial conventional radiography, while radiation exposure was slightly lower in the selective scanning group.

In some respects, it is not surprising there were no differences found – as CT was still frequently utilized in the selective CT cohort, including nearly half that ultimately underwent total-body CT.  There were some differences noted in in-hospital Injury Severity Score between groups, and I agree with Rory Spiegel’s assertion this is probably an artifact of the routine total-body CT.  This study can be used to justify either strategy, however – with selective CT proponents focusing on the lack of differences in patient-oriented outcomes, and total-body CT proponents noting minimal resource and radiation savings at the expense of timeliness.

“Immediate total-body CT scanning versus conventional imaging and selective CT scanning in patients with severe trauma (REACT-2): a randomised controlled trial”