Category Archives: Philosophy

Serial Lab Testing: Worthwhile or Worthless?: Final Answer

In my last two posts, I detailed the serum sodium measurements in a hypothetical patient two ways. The first was a listing of daily values, and the second provided values obtained every six hours or so. It also showed the sodium supplementation that was ordered based on those values. (I’ve included the table at the bottom of this post)

What did you think? Did the extra determinations help you decide what, if any, treatment was needed? Did the therapies ordered help?

Here are my thoughts:

  • Overall, there was not a huge or rapid decline in sodium values. Given the initial values, I would not have started a saline infusion on day 1, just watched a few daily values and the patients physical exam. The infusion only provided 3gm of salt per day, and the serum Na remained fairly stable for the first 3 days.
  • There was a significant amount of intra-day variation seen on the six hour table. You need to know the normal “within-person ” variation for any lab test you order. If two assays on specimens drawn at the same time can vary by 5%, you must factor this in to your decision making. If the value is 3% lower than the previous draw, the difference could represent normal variation. Obtaining more frequent assays exacerbates the amount of variation you see and my be confusing.
  • From day 5 to 6, the sodium appeared to be rising without any salt supplementation! But then a higher dose was given, and one of the intra-day values dropped to 124. What’s up with that? More variation?!
  • Is the morbidity of frequent blood draws worth it if there is no clinical change in the patient’s exam? What morbidity, you ask? Sleep disturbances, with all the cascading problems like delirium, sundowning, administration of additional meds to compensate, and on and on. Unnecessary medication or interventions. Plus it does not promote patient or family satisfaction at all.

Bottom line: Unless your patient has a clinical problem that may deteriorate rapidly, serial lab determinations are probably not of much value. The example patient was many days out from a TBI with some extra-axial blood. So yes, he could develop hyponatremia, but it would have probably surfaced earlier. Know your within-person  variability, which for sodium is roughly +2 meq. Is your new value within that limit? Then it is statistically the same as the first value unless you see a trend over several measurements. And as always, if you note a marked change in just one value, repeat it immediately before beginning any more drastic interventions.

In general, think twice before ordering serial lab tests. Can the result actually make a significant move during that period of time? Is the margin of error for the test greater than that variability? Are you truly worried about a number that would have a real clinical impact? Always ask yourself these questions before ordering an expensive and uncomfortable series of tests!

Reference: Biological variation of laboratory analytes based on the 1999-2002 national health and nutrition examination survey. Natl Health Statistic Reports 21:March 1, 2010.

Day/Time Na Treatment NaCl per day
Day 1 18:30 131
Day 1 22:54 132 0.9% NS @ 125/hr 3G
Day 2 05:59 133 continues 3G
Day 2 12:19 129 continues
Day 2 17:50 129 continues
Day 3 07:18 127 continues
Day 3 12:09 127 continues
Day 3 17:58 126 continues
Day 3 23:53 126 continues
Day 4 07:45 125 continues
Day 4 11:38 122 2% NS @ 25/hr 6G
Day 4 15:25 125 continues
Day 4 19:31 125 continues
Day 5 00:06 122 continues 6G
Day 5 04:04 126 continues
Day 5 08:01 122 continues
Day 5 11:50 132 stop
Day 5 16:14 126
Day 5 19:26 127
Day 6 00:20 129 9.2G
Day 6 04:42 127 2% NS @ 40/hr
Day 6 08:30 124 continues
Day 6 12:29 127 stop
Day 6 16:16 127 Salt tabs 2G tid
Day 6 20:28 132 continues
Day 7 05:22 134 Salt tabs 2G qid 8G
Day 7 12:33 135 continues
Day 8 07:02 131 stop None
Day 8 13:33 136
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Serial Lab Testing: Worthwhile or Worthless? Part 2

Yesterday, I posted a series of sodium levels that were drawn daily. There was no change in clinical status as the levels varied from 131 to 125 and back up.

Now let me give you a bit more information. The patient was actually getting serial checks every 6 hours (or more)! Here’s the updated chart:

Day/Time Na Treatment NaCl per day
Day 1 18:30 131
Day 1 22:54 132 0.9% NS @ 125/hr 3G
Day 2 05:59 133 continues 3G
Day 2 12:19 129 continues
Day 2 17:50 129 continues
Day 3 07:18 127 continues
Day 3 12:09 127 continues
Day 3 17:58 126 continues
Day 3 23:53 126 continues
Day 4 07:45 125 continues
Day 4 11:38 122 2% NS @ 25/hr 6G
Day 4 15:25 125 continues
Day 4 19:31 125 continues
Day 5 00:06 122 continues 6G
Day 5 04:04 126 continues
Day 5 08:01 122 continues
Day 5 11:50 132 stop
Day 5 16:14 126
Day 5 19:26 127
Day 6 00:20 129 9.2G
Day 6 04:42 127 2% NS @ 40/hr
Day 6 08:30 124 continues
Day 6 12:29 127 stop
Day 6 16:16 127 Salt tabs 2G tid
Day 6 20:28 132 continues
Day 7 05:22 134 Salt tabs 2G qid 8G
Day 7 12:33 135 continues
Day 8 07:02 131 stop None
Day 8 13:33 136

Confused? Me, too! This poor person had 30 blood draws in 8 days, with 6 per day for two of those days. Carefully look at the amount of salt given in each 24 hour period, and look at the sodium levels for that day.

See the variability, even when getting high doses of sodium chloride? What does this tell you? Was the salt administration helpful? Was seeing the lab value every 4-6 hours valuable?

Tell me what you think. Leave comments or tweet your opinions. Next, I’ll discuss the known variability of the serum sodium assay, and give you my opinion on the value of serial testing.

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Serial Lab Testing: Worthwhile or Worthless?

We’ve all done it at some point. Serial hemoglobin. Serial sodium. Serial serum porcelain levels. What does serial mean to you? And what does it tell us about or patient?

Today and tomorrow, I’d like to present an example from real life. For today, have a look at the daily sodium tests done for a patient with a head injury. The concern was for cerebral salt wasting, which is probably grounds for its own blog post.

So have a look at this series of sodium determinations. It represents serial values based on daily testing.

Day/time Na
Day 1 18:30 131
Day 2 05:59 133
Day 3 07:18 127
Day 4 07:45 125
Day 5 04:04 126
Day 6 04:42 127
Day 7 05:22 134

At what point, if any, would you be concerned with significant hyponatremia, and begin some type of supplementation?

Tomorrow, I’ll provide a little more info on levels and treatment

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If A Tree Falls In A Forest…

It’s time for a little philosophy today. There seem to be two camps in the world of initial diagnostic testing for trauma: selective scanning vs pan-scanning. I admit that I am one of the former. Yes, the more tests you do, the more things you will find, and this will make your radiologist happy. Some of these findings will be red herrings. Some may be true positives, but are they important? Here’s the key question:

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?”

Huh? How does this answer my question? Well, there is a clinical corollary to this question in the field of trauma:

“If an injury exists but no one diagnoses it, does it make a difference (if there would be no change in treatment)?”

Here’s an example. On occasion, my colleagues want to order diagnostic studies that won’t make any clinical difference, in my opinion. A prime example is getting a chest CT after a simple blunt assault. A plain chest xray is routine, and if injuries are seen or the physical exam points to certain diagnoses, appropriate interventions should be taken. But adding a chest CT does not help. Nothing more than the usual pain management, pulmonary toilet, and an occasional chest tube will be needed, and those can be determined without the CT.

Trauma professionals need to realize that we don’t need to know absolutely every diagnosis that a patient has. Ones that need no treatment are of academic interest only, and can lead to accidental injury if we look for them too hard (radiation exposure, contrast reaction, extravasation into soft tissues to name a few). This is how we get started on the path to “defensive medicine.”

Bottom line: Think hard about every test you order. Consider what you are looking for, what you might find, and if it will change your management in any way. If it could, go ahead. But always consider the benefits versus the potential risks, or what I call the “juice to squeeze ratio.”

References:

  • George Berkeley, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, 1734, section 45.
  • paraphrased by William Fossett, Natural States, 1754.
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Serial Lab Testing: Worthwhile or Worthless?: Final Answer

In my last two posts, I detailed the serum sodium measurements in a hypothetical patient two ways. The first was a listing of daily values, and the second provided values obtained every six hours or so. It also showed the sodium supplementation that was ordered based on those values. (I’ve included the table at the bottom of this post)

What did you think? Did the extra determinations help you decide what, if any, treatment was needed? Did the therapies ordered help?

Here are my thoughts:

  • Overall, there was not a huge or rapid decline in sodium values. Given the initial values, I would not have started a saline infusion on day 1, just watched a few daily values and the patients physical exam. The infusion only provided 3gm of salt per day, and the serum Na remained fairly stable for the first 3 days.
  • There was a significant amount of intra-day variation seen on the six hour table. You need to know the normal “within-person ” variation for any lab test you order. If two assays on specimens drawn at the same time can vary by 5%, you must factor this in to your decision making. If the value is 3% lower than the previous draw, the difference could represent normal variation. Obtaining more frequent assays exacerbates the amount of variation you see and my be confusing.
  • From day 5 to 6, the sodium appeared to be rising without any salt supplementation! But then a higher dose was given, and one of the intra-day values dropped to 124. What’s up with that? More variation?!
  • Is the morbidity of frequent blood draws worth it if there is no clinical change in the patient’s exam? What morbidity, you ask? Sleep disturbances, with all the cascading problems like delirium, sundowning, administration of additional meds to compensate, and on and on. Unnecessary medication or interventions. Plus it does not promote patient or family satisfaction at all.

Bottom line: Unless your patient has a clinical problem that may deteriorate rapidly, serial lab determinations are probably not of much value. The example patient was many days out from a TBI with some extra-axial blood. So yes, he could develop hyponatremia, but it would have probably surfaced earlier. Know your within-person  variability, which for sodium is roughly +2 meq. Is your new value within that limit? Then it is statistically the same as the first value unless you see a trend over several measurements. And as always, if you note a marked change in just one value, repeat it immediately before beginning any more drastic interventions.

Reference: Biological variation of laboratory analytes based on the 1999-2002 national health and nutrition examination survey. Natl Health Statistic Reports 21:March 1, 2010.

Day/Time Na Treatment NaCl per day
Day 1 18:30 131
Day 1 22:54 132 0.9% NS @ 125/hr 3G
Day 2 05:59 133 continues 3G
Day 2 12:19 129 continues
Day 2 17:50 129 continues
Day 3 07:18 127 continues
Day 3 12:09 127 continues
Day 3 17:58 126 continues
Day 3 23:53 126 continues
Day 4 07:45 125 continues
Day 4 11:38 122 2% NS @ 25/hr 6G
Day 4 15:25 125 continues
Day 4 19:31 125 continues
Day 5 00:06 122 continues 6G
Day 5 04:04 126 continues
Day 5 08:01 122 continues
Day 5 11:50 132 stop
Day 5 16:14 126
Day 5 19:26 127
Day 6 00:20 129 9.2G
Day 6 04:42 127 2% NS @ 40/hr
Day 6 08:30 124 continues
Day 6 12:29 127 stop
Day 6 16:16 127 Salt tabs 2G tid
Day 6 20:28 132 continues
Day 7 05:22 134 Salt tabs 2G qid 8G
Day 7 12:33 135 continues
Day 8 07:02 131 stop None
Day 8 13:33 136
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