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Alert system ensures more appropriate use of CT scans for children with head injuries

4th July 2022

An alert system to support clinicians has led to a reduction in the number of inappropriate CT scans for children with mild head trauma

The introduction of an alert system to provide clinical decision support in emergency departments on whether to perform a computed tomography (CT) scan on children with head trauma, has resulted in more appropriate use of such scans. This was the main conclusion of a study by a team from Utah, US.

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is an important public health problem and data produced by the CDC in the US reveal how there are approximately half a million emergency department visits for TBI every year by children aged 0 to 14 years. An important concern for clinicians is to identify whether a child has a clinically important TBI and a CT scan represents an excellent imaging modality for the identification of an intracranial injury. However, not all children with a head injury require a CT scan and clinical decision rules can help standardise and improve the use of CT for children with minor head injury.

For the present study, the US wanted to explore whether the introduction of an alert system at the point when clinicians were considering the use of a CT scan, could provide enhanced support and therefore make more appropriate use of these scans. The alert system made use of the Pediatric Emergency Care Applied Research Network (PECARN) head trauma clinical decision rules, which provided risk stratification to help reduce diagnostic uncertainty and the need for unnecessary CT scans. Prior to the decision-making for the need to perform a CT scan, clinicians were presented with a pop-up’ alert, which provided a risk assessment. In trying to assess the value of introducing the alert system, the researchers considered guideline adherence, which they considered to be not performing a CT scan when the alert system identified the patient as being at low risk. For the study, all sites provided data on the level of CT scans before and after introduction of the intervention for comparative purposes.

Alert system and change in CT scanning

A total of 12, 670 paediatric minor head trauma encounters were included in the analysis. The proportion of guideline-adherent encounters increased from 94.8% in the control period to 99.4% during the time when the intervention was implemented. Furthermore, the proportion of CT scans performed reduced from 38.6% in the control period to 29.8% after implementation of the intervention.

The authors calculated that the odds of an encounter being guideline-adherent was 1.12 (95% CI 1.03 – 1.22) or approximately 10% higher during the intervention compared to the control time period. Moreover, when using a pre-post comparison, guideline adherence remained significantly higher than the control period (odds ratio = 5.33, 95% CI 3.75 – 7.59).

The authors concluded that the implementation of the alert system led to sustained improvements in adherence to guidelines on the need for a CT scan and a modest reduction in scans among low risk patients.

Knighton AJ et al. Improving Head CT Scan Decisions for Pediatric Minor Head Trauma in General Emergency Departments: A Pragmatic Implementation Study Ann Emerg Med 2022