It’s SAH Silly Season Again!

A blustery, relentless wind is blowing the last brittle teeth from the trees here in late November – which must mean it’s time to descend, yet again, into decision-instrument madness. Today’s candidate/culprit:

The Ottawa Subarachnoid Rule, once-derived, now-validated in this most recent publication highlighting their prospective, observational, multi-center follow-up to the original. The components are as you see above, and the cohort eligible for inclusion were neurologically intact “adult patients with nontraumatic headache that had reached maximal intensity within 1 hour of onset”. Over four years, six Canadian hospitals, and a combined annual census of 365,000, these authors identified 1,743 eligible patients with headache, 1,153 of whom consented to study inclusion and follow-up. Of these, there were 67 patients ultimately diagnosed with SAH, and the Rule picked up all of them for a sensitivity of 100% (95% CI 94.6% to 100%) – and a specificity of 13.6% (95 CI 13.1% to 15.8%).

Unfortunately, take the infographic above and burn it, because, frankly, their route to 100% sensitivity is, essentially: everyone needs evaluation.  This can be reasonable when the disease is life-threatening, such as this, but the specificity is so poor in a population with such a low prevalence the rate of evaluation becomes absurd.

If their rule had been followed in this cohort, the rate of investigation would have been 84.3% – or, 972 patients evaluated in order to pick up the 67 positives. Then, in the context of usual practice in this cohort, the investigation rate was 89.0%. That means, over the course of 4 years in these six hospitals, use of this decision instrument would have saved 1 fewer patient from an investigation for SAH every six months. However, the hospitals included for this validation were also the same ones who assisted in the derivation, meaning their practice was likely already based around the rule. I expect, in most settings, this decision instrument will increase the rate of investigation – and do so without substantially improving sensitivity.

Furthermore, their definition also includes patients with a diagnosis of non-aneurysmal SAH who did not undergo intervention, a cohort in whom the diagnosis is of uncertain clinical significance.  If only those with aneurysms and morbidity/mortality-preventing interventions were included, the prevalence of disease would be even lower.  We would then be looking at even fewer true positives  for all this resource expenditure.

The other issue with a rule in which ~85% of patients undergo investigation for headache is the indication creep that may occur when physicians apply the rule outside the inclusion criteria for this study. The prevalence of SAH here is very high compared with the typical ED population presenting with headache. If less strict inclusion criteria are used, the net effect willy likely be to increase low-value investigations in the overall population. Dissemination of this decision instrument and the downstream application to other severe headaches in the ED will likely further degrade the overall appropriateness of care.

Finally, just as a matter of principle, the information graphic is inappropriate because it implies a mandated course of medical practice. No decision instrument should ever promote itself as a replacement for clinical judgment.

“Validation of the Ottawa Subarachnoid Hemorrhage Rule in patients with acute headache”

One thought on “It’s SAH Silly Season Again!”

  1. As always, excellent post Ryan.

    I imagine this “rule” will never get off the ground for the exact reasons you specify… A decision instrument that tells us to scan just about everyone with a specificity of 13% can’t be better than experienced clinician judgement. (I think Steve Green would go nuts over this one…)

    Keep up the good work!


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