It’s Sepsis-Harassment!

The computer knows all in modern medicine. The electronic health record is the new Big Brother, all-seeing, never un-seeing. And it sees “sepsis” – a lot.

This is a report on the downstream effects of an electronic sepsis alert system at an academic medical center. Their sepsis alert system was based loosely on the systemic inflammatory response syndrome for the initial warning to nursing staff, followed by additional alerts triggered by hypotension or elevated lactate. These alerts prompted use of sepsis order sets or triggering of internal “sepsis alert” protocols. Their outcomes of interest in their analysis were length-of-stay and in-hospital mortality.

At first glance, the alert appears to be a success – length of stay dropped from 10.1 days to 8.6, and in-hospital mortality from 8.5% to 7.0%. It would have been quite simple to stop there and trumpet these results as favoring the alerts, but the additional analyses performed by these authors demonstrate otherwise. In the case of both length-of-stay and mortality, both of those measures were trending downward independently regardless of the intervention, and in their adjusted analyses, none of the improvements could be conclusively tied to the sepsis alerts – and some relating to diagnoses of less-severe cases of sepsis probably prompted by the alert itself.

What is not debatable, however, is the burden on clinicians and staff. During their ~2.5 year study period, the sepsis alerts were triggered 97,216 times – 14,207 of which in the 2,144 subsequently receiving a final diagnosis of sepsis. The SIRS-based alerts comprised most (83,385) of these alerts, but only captured 73% of those with an ultimate diagnosis of sepsis, while having only a 13% true positive rate. The authors’ conclusion gets it right:

Our results suggest that more sophisticated approaches to early identification of sepsis patients are needed to consistently improve patient outcomes.

“Impact of an emergency department electronic sepsis surveillance system on patient mortality and length of stay”

Predicting Poor Outcomes After Syncope

Syncope is a classic good news/bad news presenting complaint. It can be highly distressing to patients and family members, but rarely does it relate to an acutely serious underlying cause. That’s the good news. The bad news, however, is that for those with the worst prognosis, most of the poor prognostic features are unmodifiable.

This is a prospective, observational study of patients presenting with syncope to Emergency Departments in Canada, with the stated goal of developing a risk model for poor outcomes after syncope. The composite outcome of interest was death, arrhythmia, or interventions to treat arrhythmias within 30 days of ED disposition. Follow-up was performed by structured telephone interview, networked hospital record review, and Coroner’s Office record search.

To achieve a lower bound of the 95% confidence interval for sensitivity of 96.4%, these authors targeted a sample size of 5,000 patients, and ultimately enrolled 5,010 with complete outcome assessments. The mean age was 53.4, had a low incidence of comorbid medical conditions, and only 9.5% were admitted to the hospital. Within 30 days, 22 had died, 15 from unknown causes and the others from the pool of 91 patients diagnosed with a “serious arrhythmia” – sinus node dysfunction, atrial fibrillation, AV block, ventricular arrhythmia, supraventricular tachycardia, or requiring a pacemaker insertion.

These authors ride the standard merry-go-round of statistical analysis, bootstrapping, and logistic regression to determine a prediction rule – the Canadian Syncope Arrhythmia Risk Score – an eight element additive and subtractive scoring system to stratify patients into one of eleven expected risk categories. They report the test characteristics of their proposed clinically useful threshold, greater than 0, to be a sensitivity of 97.1% and a specificity of 53.4% – a weak positive predictive value of 4.4% considering the low incidence of the composite outcome.

This is yet another product of obviously excellent work from the risk model machines in Canada, but, again, of uncertain clinical value. The elements of the risk model are frankly those that are quite obvious: elevated troponin and conduction delays on EKG, along with an absence of classic vasovagal features. These are patients whose cardiac function is obviously impaired, but short a time machine to go back and fix those hearts before they became sick, it’s a bit difficult to see the path forward. These authors feel their prediction rule aids in safe discharge of patients with syncope, although these patients are already infrequently admitted to the hospital in Canada. The various members of their composite outcome are not equally serious, preventable, or treatable, limiting the potential management options for even those falling into their high-risk group.

As with any decision instrument, its value remains uncertain until it is demonstrated the clinical decisions supplemented by this rule lead to better patient-oriented outcomes and/or resource utilization than our current management in this cohort.

“Predicting Short-Term Risk of Arrhythmia among Patients with Syncope: The Canadian Syncope Arrhythmia Risk Score”

Azithromycin Ruins Everything

For some reason – and by “some reason”, I mean extensive evaluation of immunomodulatory properties – there is an obsession with azithromycin use for more than simply its anti-bacterial indications. It has been hypothesized to diminish inflammation and have antiviral properties, and, of course, functions as a floor wax and dessert topping.

This is a randomized, controlled trial of azithromycin versus placebo in pre-school children with acute wheezing as a primary diagnosis. The primary outcome was time to resolution of respiratory symptoms, and secondary outcomes included any use of short-acting beta-agonists, adverse events, and time to any repeat exacerbation of wheezing.  These authors enrolled 300 before funding ran out, and were able to follow-up 222 with completed symptom diaries. Patients were generally similar between the two groups, and over 80% of each cohort had prior episodes of wheezing, and a similar percentage used or was prescribed a beta-agonist at discharge from the Emergency Department.

The winner: nothing and no one. Azithromycin did not improve any outcomes versus placebo, and should not be used for suspected viral wheezing in the hopes of anti-inflammatory symptom improvement until better evidence of benefit emerges.

“Treatment of preschool children presenting to the emergency department with wheeze with azithromycin: A placebo-controlled randomized trial”