ATLANTA – but accomplishing this goal takes more than a new clinical practice guideline, according to a quality improvement team at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn.
The team eventually reduced the chest x-ray rate for pediatric asthma exacerbations from 30% to 15% without increasing 3-day all-cause readmissions, but it took some sleuthing in the ED and good relations with staff. “We were way out in left field when we started this. Working in silos is never ideal,” said senior project member David Johnson, MD, a pediatric hospitalist and assistant professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt.
It’s been known for a while that chest x-rays are almost always a waste of time and money for asthma exacerbations, and national guidelines recommend against them. X-rays don’t improve outcomes and needlessly expose children to radiation.
In 2014, some of the providers at Vanderbilt, which has about 1,700 asthma encounters a year, realized that the institution’s 30% x-ray rate was a problem. The quality improvement team hoped a new guideline would address the issue, but that didn’t happen. “We roll out clinical practice guidelines” from on high, “and think people will magically change their behavior,” but they don’t, Dr. Johnson said at the annual Pediatric Hospital Medicine meeting.
The guideline was not being fully implemented. So the team asked the ED what was the standard procedure for a child presenting with asthma exacerbation. It turned out that the ED had a dyspnea order set that the team ”had no idea existed.” Chest x-rays were at the top of the list; next came blood gases, ventilation-perfusion scans, and leg Dopplers, he said.
The investigators tried to get rid of the whole order set but were unsuccessful. The ED department did, however, let the team eliminate chest x-rays in the default order set in July 2015. That helped, but more changes were needed.
The next conversation was to figure out why x-rays were being ordered in the first place. ED staff said they were worried about missing something, especially pneumonia. They also thought they were helping hospitalists by getting x-rays before sending kids to the ward even though, in reality, it didn’t matter whether x-rays were done a few hours later on the floor. ED providers also said that ill-appearing children often got better after a few hours but were kept back from discharge because x-ray results were still pending and that sometimes these results revealed problems at 3 a.m. that had nothing to do with why the patients were in the ED but still required a work-up.
This discussion opened a door. The ED staff didn’t want to order unnecessary x-rays, either. That led to talks about letting kids declare themselves a bit before x-rays were ordered. ED staff liked the idea, so the guidelines were updated in early 2016 to say that chest x-rays should only be ordered if there is persistent severe respiratory distress with hypoxia, there are focal findings that don’t improve after 12 hours of treatment, or there were concerns for pneumomediastinum or collapsed lung. The updated guidelines were posted in work areas and brought home by resident education. A reminder was added to the electronic medical record system that popped up when someone tried to order a chest x-ray for an child with asthma.
It worked. Chest x-ray rates in asthma fell to 15%, and have remained there since.
“We gave them permission to take their foot off the throttle and wait a little bit, and we don’t have more kids bouncing back from reduced x-rays.” The approach is “probably generalizable everywhere,” Dr. Johnson said.
It was essential that an ED fellow, Caroline Watnick, MD, led the effort and eventually bridged the gap between hospitalists and ED providers. In the end, “the change wasn’t something from the outside,” Dr. Johnson said.
There was no industry funding, and Dr. Johnson didn’t have any disclosures. The Pediatric Hospital Medicine meeting is sponsored by the Society of Hospital Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Academic Pediatric Association.