Patient Care

Pediatric Hospitalists Trust Their Gut with Serious Infections


Clinical question: How helpful is the “gut feeling” that clinicians might have that a child is more ill than they look?

Background: Timely recognition of serious infections in children is difficult but critical to improved outcomes. Numerous studies have examined clinical criteria and laboratory tests to distinguish viral infections from more serious bacterial infections but have demonstrated mixed results. Clinicians’ subjective impressions of patients continue to drive many care patterns, and the relevance of a gut feeling that something is wrong remains unclear.

Study design: Prospective observational study.

Setting: Primary-care clinics in Flanders, Belgium.

Synopsis: Nearly 4,000 children 0-16 years of age were evaluated after presentation for acute illness in primary-care settings. Clinical features, overall “clinical impression” (serious illness present or absent), and “gut feelings” (present, absent or unsure) that something was wrong were prospectively recorded. Serious infections were defined as hospital admissions for potential bacterial infections.

The presence of a gut feeling significantly increased the risk of serious illness (likelihood ratio 25.5, 95% confidence interval 7.9 to 82.0) and had a consistently higher specificity than clinical impression alone. The overall sensitivity of the gut feeling in this cohort was 61.9% with a specificity of 97.2%, while the positive predictive value was 10.8% and negative predictive value 99.8%. A history of convulsions and parental concerns were independently strongly associated with a positive gut feeling.

Similar to other clinical and laboratory evaluations designed to detect serious illness, the absence of a gut feeling might be the more useful finding from this study. Limitations of the data include an inability to further delve into what gives rise to a gut feeling in clinical practice as well as a moderate level of variance in the multivariate models. Additionally, only 21 children were ultimately admitted to the hospital, which, in conjunction with the subsequent power limitations, highlights the proverbial difficulty of finding that “needle in the haystack.”

Bottom line: The presence or absence of a gut feeling that something is wrong might be an important component of the history in acute childhood illness.

Citation: Van den Bruel A, Thompson M, Buntinx F, Mant D. Clinicians’ gut feeling about serious infections in children: observational study. BMJ. 2012;345:e6144.

Reviewed by Pediatric Editor Mark Shen, MD, SFHM, medical director of hospital medicine at Dell Children's Medical Center, Austin, Texas.

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