Misleading Abstract Alert: Injuries Identified By Chest CT

Here is another one of those papers that have this nicely done abstract that arrives at what seems to be a reasonable conclusion. But then you sit back and think about it. And it’s no longer so reasonable.

This study seems like it should be a good one! It’s a multi-center trial involving data from ten level I trauma centers. The research infrastructure used to collect the data and the statistical analyses for this retrospective review were sound.

Here are the factoids:

  • Of nearly 15,000 patients with blunt chest trauma, about 6,000 (40%) underwent both chest x-ray and CT
  • 25% (1,454) of these patient had new injuries discovered by the CT
  • 954 were truly occult, only being found on the CT; the remaining 500 scans found more injuries than seen on chest x-ray
  • 202 patients had major interventions (chest tube, ventilator, surgery)
  • 343 had minor interventions (admission, extended observation)
  • Chest x-ray was not very good at detecting aortic or diaphragm injury (surprise)
  • 76% of the major interventions were chest tube insertions
  • 32% of of patients with new fractures seen were hospitalized for pain control
  • None of the odds ratios reported were statistically significant

Bottom line: What could possibly go wrong? Ten trauma centers. Six thousand patients. Lots of data points. There are two major issues. First, the primary outcome was a major intervention based on the chest CT. The problem with having so many participating centers is that it is hard to figure out why they performed the interventions. Are they saying that a pneumothorax or hemothorax that was invisible on chest x-ray required a chest tube? Based on whose judgment? Unfortunately, that is a big variable. The authors admit that they did not know whether “interventions based on chest CT were truly necessary or beneficial because we did not study patient outcomes” and that the decisions for intervention “were largely made by residents (usually) or fellows.”

And the secondary outcome was admission or extended observation based on the chest CT. Yet these admissions were primarily for pain management in patients with fractures. Did the patients develop additional pain due to irradiation, or was it there all along?

So adding a chest CT greatly increases the likelihood of doing additional procedures. And it is difficult to tell (from this study) if those procedures were truly necessary. But we know that they can certainly be dangerous. If you back out all of the potentially unnecessary chest tubes and the admissions for pain that should have been admitted anyway, this study demonstrates very little additional value from CT.

A well-crafted imaging guideline will help determine which patients really need CT to identify patients with those occult injuries that are dangerous enough that they can’t be missed. The authors even conclude that “a validated decision instrument to support clinical judgment is needed.”

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Reference: Prevalence and clinical import of thoracic injury identified by chest computed tomography but not chesty radiography in blunt trauma: multicenter prospective cohort study. Annals Emerg Med 66(6):589-600, 2015.

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