A qSOFA Trifecta

There’s a new sepsis in town – although, by “new” it’s not very anymore. We’re supposedly all-in on Sepsis-3, which in theory is superior to the old sepsis.

One of the most prominent and controversial aspects of the sepsis reimagining is the discarding of the flawed Systemic Inflammatory Response Syndrome criteria and its replacement with the Quick Sequential Organ Failure Assessment. In theory, qSOFA replaces the non-specific items from SIRS with physiologic variables more closely related to organ failure. However, qSOFA was never prospectively validated or compared prior to its introduction.

These three articles give us a little more insight – and, as many have voiced concern already, it appears we’ve just replaced one flawed agent with another.

The first article, from JAMA, describes the performance of qSOFA against SIRS and a 2-point increase in the full SOFA score in an ICU population. This retrospective analysis of 184,875 patients across 15 years of registry data from 182 ICUs in Australia and New Zealand showed very little difference between SIRS and qSOFA with regard to predicting in-hospital mortality. Both screening tools were also far inferior to the full SOFA score – although, in practical terms, the differences in adjusted AUC were only between ~0.69 for SIRS and qSOFA and 0.76 for SOFA. As prognostic tools, then, none of these are fantastic – and, unfortunately, qSOFA did not seem to offer any value over SIRS.

The second article, also from JAMA, is some of the first prospective data regarding qSOFA in the Emergency Department. This sample is 879 patients with suspected infection, followed for in-hospital mortality or ICU admission. The big news from this article is the AUC for qSOFA of 0.80 compared with the 0.65 for SIRS or “severe sepsis”, as defined by SIRS plus a lactate greater than 2mmol/L. However, at a cut-off of 2 or more for qSOFA, the advertised cut-off for “high risk”, the sensitivity and specificity were 70% and 79% respectively.

Finally, a third article, from Annals of Emergency Medicine, also evaluates the performance characteristics of qSOFA in an Emergency Department population. This retrospective evaluation describes the performance of qSOFA at predicting admission and mortality, but differs from the JAMA article by applying qSOFA to a cross-section of mostly high-acuity visits, both with and without suspected infection. Based on a sample of 22,350 ED visits, they found similar sensitivity and specificity of a qSOFA score of 2 or greater for predicting mortality, 71% and 74%, respectively. Performance was not meaningfully different between those with and without infection.

It seems pretty clear, then, this score doesn’t hold a lot of value. SIRS, obviously, has its well-documented flaws. qSOFA seems to have better discriminatory value with regards to the AUC, but its performance at the cut-off level of 2 puts it right in a no-man’s land of clinical utility. It is not sensitive enough to rely upon to capture all patients at high-risk for deterioration – but, then, its specificity is also poor enough using it to screen the general ED population will still result in a flood of false positives.

So, unfortunately, these criteria are probably a failed paradigm perpetuating all the same administrative headaches as the previous approach to sepsis – better than SIRS, but still not good enough. We should be pursuing more robust decision-support built-in to the EHR, not attempting to reinvent overly-simplified instruments without usable discriminatory value.

“Prognostic Accuracy of the SOFA Score, SIRS Criteria, and qSOFA Score for In-Hospital Mortality Among Adults With Suspected Infection Admitted to the Intensive Care Unit”


“Prognostic Accuracy of Sepsis-3 Criteria for In-Hospital Mortality Among Patients With Suspected Infection Presenting to the Emergency Department”


“Quick SOFA Scores Predict Mortality in Adult Emergency Department Patients With and Without Suspected Infection”



I will readily admit I am stepping outside the bounds of my expertise with this post – with respect to the “shenfu injection” and its effects on physiology. The authors describe shenfu as “originated from Shenfu decoction, a well-known traditional Chinese formulation restoring ‘Yang’ from collapse, tonifying ‘Qi’ for relieving desertion”. More specifically, from a physiologic standpoint: “Ginsenosides and aconite alkaloids are the main active ingredients in Shenfu. Ginsenosides are the determinant contributor to the vasodilator benefit of Shenfu, whereas the alkaloids play a vital role in the cardiac electrophysiological effect of Shenfu by blocking ion channels”. In China, a pharmacologic shenfu distillate is used routinely to treat sepsis and septic shock as a 100mL daily injection – and this is a placebo-controlled trial endeavoring to demonstrate its efficacy.

At face value, the trial appears reasonable – a targeted enrollment of 160 patients with a goal of detecting a 20% difference in mortality at 28-days, based on an expected overall mortality of 40%. Their primary outcome, however, were the co-primary outcomes of “length of ICU stay, the duration of vasopressor use, illness severity, and the degree of organ dysfunction.” A proper study, of course, has a single primary outcome – and, considering the study was powered for a mortality difference, this patient-oriented outcome probably ought to have been made primary.

Regardless, from the results presented here, it is reasonable to suggest this is promising and worthy of additional evaluation. Several outcomes – ICU LOS, APACHE II score, and duration of vasopressor us – reached statistical significance favoring the intervention. The mortality outcome did not meet statistical significance with the intervention at 20.5% and the placebo at 27.8%. However, an absolute mortality improvement of 7.3% is nothing to sneeze at – and I would be happy to see more work performed to replicate or generalize these results.

“Shenfu injection for improving cellular immunity and clinical outcome in patients with sepsis or septic shock”


No, All Bacteria Do Not Require Antibiotics

The natural world is replete with bacteria.

Humans have existed on this planet for millennia.

In the ages before antibiotics, many humans succumbed to bacterial infections – while, of course, the vast majority survived.

This is not a profoundly reliable observational study, but it does help reinforce this basic concept. This report is a secondary analysis of the GRACE-10 study, which involved primary care patients recruited with a diagnosis of acute cough. The original study was a randomized, placebo-controlled trial for non-specific lower respiratory tract infection, as part of a genomics analysis for evaluation of antibiotic resistance.

This analysis, however, looks solely at the placebo arm, and examines the symptom course and resolution of those who were ultimately diagnosed with a bacterial cause of their LRTI and compares the with those who were not. Of the 834 patients included in their analysis (those with complete symptom diaries), 162 were thought to have a bacteria pathogen based on respiratory culture, nasal swab, or whole blood antibody titers.

S pneumoniae and H influenzae were the most common bacterial pathogens, with most of the remainder the “atypicals” for community-acquired pneumonia. And, at the end of the day: virtually everyone did fine. Patients with a confirmed bacterial pathogen in the setting of their LRTI improved slightly more slowly than those without, had more re-visits in follow-up due to worsening or new symptoms, and a greater percentage were placed on antibiotics in follow-up (12% vs. 6%). The remainder eradicated their bacterial pathogens without antibiotics – you know, the way humans and other contemporary mammals survived for eons.

Now, some of these cases positive for LRTI may be colonization and not pathogenic infection, while some of the negative cases were not diagnosed due to lack of sensitivity. But, regardless, the overall point of this article is probably valid – some bacterial infections will worsen, but in the generally healthy population, a delayed-antibiotic strategy might be valid as an attempt to improve antibiotic stewardship.

“Disease Course of Lower Respiratory Tract Infection With a Bacterial Cause”


Why Can’t We Properly Identify Cellulitis?

If you read the lay medical news, that’s the question being posed, indirectly, to Emergency Physicians at large. Why, oh why, are you terrible at accurately diagnosing and hospitalizing patients for cellulitis:

“Approximately One-Third Of People Diagnosed With Cellulitis Do Not Actually Have It, Study Suggests.”(HealthDay)

And, if you believe the authors of the cited article, cellulitis misdiagnosis leads to up to 130,000 unnecessary hospitalizations and $515M in avoidable healthcare costs, let alone the costs of various secondary harms.

Unfortunately, this well-covered indictment of our care of cellulitis comes from a not-so-reliable study: a retrospective evaluation of 259 patients hospitalized over a 2 year period. Of these patient charts reviewed, the authors felt as though 79 (30.5%) were misdiagnosed with cellulitis. The authors then plugged these numbers into their meandering cost calculations for unnecessary care, resulting in the numbers above.

The actual conclusions, however, bear no resemblance to the circulating headline. It is not “one-third of people diagnosed with cellulitis” – it is one-third of a narrowly defined cohort of hospitalized patients with lower extremity cellulitis. The misdiagnosis rate is based only on the shadowy shapes discernible through chart review, with all its omissions and inaccuracies. I doubt the sort of complicated medical presentations common at a teaching facility and referral hospital are generalizable to the vast majority of the ~2.5 million annual ED visits for cellulitis, most of whom are probably more straightforward. Then, even their cost numbers are probably inflated by using the average cost of an “unnecessary” 4.3 day medical stay – $12,656.90 – generalized to their cohort.

In many instances, in the setting of diagnostic uncertainty, it is absolutely reasonable to err on the side of caution and treatment. I am not certain these authors’ interpretation of their narrow slice of the healthcare spectrum accurately reflects the larger reality. Amusingly, though, their article ends with the statement “Our study serves as a call to arms for improving the care of patients with suspected lower extremity cellulitis.” Their proposed solution? A Dermatology consult on every case of suspected lower extremity cellulitis!

“Costs and Consequences Associated With Misdiagnosed Lower Extremity Cellulitis”

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 5-Second Rule, Meet Science!

Again with the headlines: “The ‘5-second rule’ is disproved in new study”.

And, again, checking the veracity of their knowledge translation distillation: not exactly.

These authors placed four different foods (watermelon, bread, buttered bread, and gummy candy[Haribo, Strawberries]) on four different surfaces (steel, tile, wood and carpet). They let the food stay in contact with the surface for <1 second, 5 seconds, 30 seconds, or 300 seconds. However, where this study falls off the generalizability wagon: each surface was pre-coated with bacteria-rich broth.

So, yes, in their study, even instant contact was adequate to transfer some bacteria from surface to food. Five seconds quite obviously transferred plenty of bacteria. Otherwise, the amount of bacteria transferred was roughly related to moisture in the food item and surface area in direct contact.

But, is the “5-second rule” obsolete? Hardly. Consider the context of history – where humans have been eating in less sanitary situations for hundreds of thousands of years. Then, chances are your hands are more likely to contaminate your food than the floor in your house. So, food that has been dropped on most clean floors may pick up some bacteria – but these authors’ results are only a surrogate for multifactorial confounded potential downstream harms.

However, if your floor is coated with a thriving culture of pathogenic bacteria – all bets are off.

“Longer Contact Times Increase Cross-Contamination of Enterobacter aerogenes from Surfaces to Food”

The Downside of Antibiotic Stewardship

There are many advantages to curtailing antibiotic prescribing. Costs are reduced, fewer antibiotic-resistant bacteria are induced, and treatment-associated adverse events are eliminated.

This retrospective, population-based study, however, illuminates the potential drawbacks. Using electronic record review spanning 10 years of general practice encounters, these authors compared infectious complication rates between practices with low and high antibiotic prescribing rates. Spanning 45.5 million person-years of follow-up after office visits for respiratory tract infections, there is both reason for reassurance and reason for further concern.

On the “pro” side, cases of mastoiditis, empyema, bacterial meningitis, intracranial abscess and Lemierre’s syndrome were no different between those who prescribed high rates (>58%) and those with low rates (<44%). However, there is a reasonably clear linear relationship with excess follow-up encounters for both pneumonia and peritonsilar abscess. Incidence rate ratios were 0.70 compared with reference for pneumonia and 0.78 compared with reference for peritonsillar abscess. However, the absolute differences can best be described as “large handful” and “small handful” of extra cases per 100,000 encounters

There are many rough edges and flaws relating to these data, some of which are probably adequately defeated by the massive cohort size. I think it is reasonable to interpret this article as accurately reflecting true harms from antibiotic stewardship. More work should absolutely be pursued in terms of strategies to mitigate these potential downstream complications, but I believe the balance of benefits and harms still falls on the side of continued efforts in stewardship.

“Safety of reduced antibiotic prescribing for self limiting respiratory tract infections in primary care: cohort study using electronic health records”


The Febrile Infant Step-by-Step

You’ve heard of the Philadelphia Criteria. You’ve heard of the Rochester Criteria. But – Step-by-Step?

This is an algorithm developed by European emergency physicians to identify low-risk infants who could be safely managed without lumbar puncture nor empiric antibiotic treatment. After retrospectively validating their algorithm on 1,123 patients, this is their prospective validation in 2,185 – looking for IBI or “Invasive Bacterial Infection” as their primary outcome.

The easiest way to summarize their algorithm and results is by this figure:

Step by Step

Sensitivity and specificity, respectively, were as follows:

  • Rochester – 81.6% and 44.5%
  • Lab-score – 59.8% and 84.0%
  • Step-by-Step – 92.0% and 46.9%

The authors attribute 6 of the 7 missed by Step-by-Step to evaluation early in the disease process – presentation within 2 hours of onset of fever.

Their algorithm is reasonable at face validity, and could be incorporated into a protocol with close follow-up to re-evaluate those early in their disease process. We still have, however, a long way to go regarding specificity.

“Validation of the “Step-by-Step” Approach in the Management of Young Febrile Infants”

The “IV Antibiotics” Sham

Among the many overused tropes in medicine is the myth of the supremacy of intravenous antibiotics.  In the appropriate clinical context, it’s just a waste.

This is a retrospective analysis of 36,405 patients hospitalized for community-acquired pneumonia, and for whom a fluoroquinolone was selected as therapy.  The vast majority – 94% – received an intravenous dose, while the remaining 2,205 (6%) were treated orally.  Unadjusted mortality favored the oral dose – unsurprisingly, as those patients also generally has fewer comorbid conditions.  In their multivariate, propensity-matched analysis, there was no difference in mortality, intensive care unit escalation, or mechanical ventilation.

These results are wholly unsurprising, and the key feature is the class of antibiotic involved.  Commonly used antibiotics in the fluoroquinolone class, trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole, metronidazole, and clindamycin, among others, have excellent oral absorption.  I have seen many a referral to the Emergency Department for “intravenous antibiotics” prior to an anticipated discharge to home therapy when any one of these choices could have obviated the entire encounter.

“Association Between Initial Route of Fluoroquinolone Administration and Outcomes in Patients Hospitalized for Community-acquired Pneumonia”

The Magic Bacterial Divining Rod

Antibiotic overuse is a real issue.  In modern countries, despite obsessing over antibiotic stewardship, we are still suckers for the excessive use of both narrow-spectrum antibiotics for ambulatory patients and broad-spectrum antibiotics for the critically ill.  In less resource-capable areas, the tests used to stratify patients as potentially bacterial or viral exceed the cost of the antibiotics – also leading down the path to overuse.

This breathless coverage, featured in Time, the AFP, and proudly advertised by Stanford Medicine, profiles a new panel of tests that is destined to bring clarity.  Rather than relying simply on a single biomarker, “our test can detect an infection anywhere in the body by ‘reading the immune system’”.

They used retrospective genetic expression cohorts from children and adults with supposedly confirmed non-infectious or infectious etiologies to derive and validate a scoring system to differentiate the underlying cause of sepsis.  They then further trim their model by eliminating infants and predominately healthy patients from outpatient cohorts.  Ultimately, they then test their model on a previously uncharacterized whole blood sample from 96 pediatric sepsis patients and report an AUC for viral vs. bacterial sepsis of 0.84, with a -LR of 0.15 and +LR of 3.0 for bacterial infections.  At face value, translated to a presumed clinical setting with a generally low prevalence of bacterial infection complicating SIRS, this is an uninspiring result.

However, these authors rather focus their discussion and press releases around the -LR of 0.10 and +LR of 2.34 produced as part of their ideal validation cohort, trumpeting its superiority over the -LR for procalcitonin of 0.29 as “three-fold improvement”.  This is, of course, nonsense, as the AUC from that same procalcitonin meta-analysis was 0.85, and these authors are simply cherry-picking one threshold and performance characteristic for their comparison.

Now, that’s hardly to say this is not novel work, and their confusion matrices showing clustering of non-infected SIRS vs. bacterial sepsis vs. viral sepsis are quite lovely.  Their approach is interesting, and very well could ultimately outperform existing strategies.  However, their current performance clearly does not match the hype, and they are miles away from a meaningful validation.  Furthermore, the sort of nano-array assay required is neither fast enough to be clinically useful nor likely to be produced cheaply enough to be used in some of the resource-poor settings they claim to be addressing.

It makes for a nice headline, but it’s better consigned to the “Fantasy/Science Fiction” shelf of your local bookstore for now.

“Robust classification of bacterial and viral infections via integrated host gene expression diagnostics”