Navigating the obstacle course of diagnosing, managing pediatric hypertension


The clinical context of high blood pressure shifts abruptly when a person comes of age.

In adults 18 years old and up it’s fairly simple. Blood pressure above 140/90 mm Hg is generally a clear problem, less than 130/85 is probably okay for now, and in between is something to monitor. When pressure stays above 140/90 mm Hg despite lifestyle interventions it’s time to start treatment with any of several antihypertensive drug options that mostly have well-documented safety and efficacy track records in adults and widely agreed-on benefits that outweigh risks.

For pediatric practice, children and adolescents 3-17 years old, dealing with high blood pressure is much more an obstacle course of complex diagnostic criteria, challenges in pressure measurement, and seemingly inconsistent recommendations. Pediatric hypertension also often brings clinicians up against the child and adolescent obesity epidemic, which has made pediatric hypertension more common than ever.

Against this backdrop, a panel assembled by the American Academy of Pediatrics is revising the 2004 The Fourth Report on the Diagnosis, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Pressure in Children and Adolescents, the reigning standard for pediatric blood pressure assessment and hypertension management and now more than a decade old. With new guidance from the AAP expected in the second half of 2017, best-practice approaches to pediatric hypertension are in flux and need updating just when the disorder is more prevalent than it’s ever been.

Diagnosing pediatric hypertension falls short

This shifting landscape and increasing burden of pediatric hypertension comes at a time when primary-care pediatricians and family practice physicians are failing to perform fully comprehensive blood pressure monitoring of their pediatric patients. Current practice recommendations from the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (in the form of the 2004 Fourth Report), and from American Heart Association (most recently reiterated in a scientific statement in August 2016) call measuring blood pressure levels at every patient encounter starting at 3 years old, the approach also endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

But that’s often not done. “Results from plenty of studies show that we are not doing a great job” identifying children and adolescents with hypertension, said Tammy M. Brady, MD, a pediatric nephrologist at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore.

Dr. Tammy M. Brady Mitchel L. Zoler/Frontline Medical News

Dr. Tammy M. Brady

One piece of evidence she cited was a study of more than 93,000 U.S. ambulatory pediatric visits during 2000-2009 in data collected by the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey and the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, and sampling that represented an average 142 million ambulatory visits each year by 3-18 year olds. The data showed blood pressure screening occurred during 35% of ambulatory visits, 67% of preventive visits, and during 84% of preventive visits for a child or adolescent who was overweight or obese (Pediatrics. 2012 October;130[4]:604-10).

While the numbers showed good practice with a reasonably high level of routine blood pressure measurement in overweight and obese patients, they also suggest that perhaps a third of all U.S. children and adolescents don’t have their blood pressure checked at least once a year. Statistical analyses from this study showed that blood pressure measurement was about twice as likely in children diagnosed as overweight or obese than normal-weight patients, and that blood pressure measurement was 2.6-fold more common in adolescents 13-18 years old compared with children 3-7 years old.

In a second, recent study of 29,000 2-17 years old seen at Children’s Hospital of Chicago, 3% had at least three elevated blood pressure measurements in their hospital record, but in this subset of patients at high risk of having hypertension 21% were actually identified in their medical record as having high blood pressure.

Dr. Brady pointed out that while many of the children and adolescents in this study with three or more high blood pressure readings may not actually have hypertension, defined as a sustained elevation of blood pressure, they are all at risk for development of hypertension and should be targeted for prevention.

“We do a bad job identifying when blood pressure is high,” Dr. Brady said in an interview. She cited a study she recently ran that examined the impact that EMR alerts could have on this diagnostic challenge. She reviewed records for 1,305 patient encounters done before or after institution of a EMR alert that warmed clinicians when a patient’s blood pressure measurement fell above the normal range. The results showed that for these patients, 3-21 years old, the rate of recognition of a high pressure measurement increased from 13% before the alert system started to 42% with the alert system in place (Clin Ped. 2015 June;54[7]:667-75). “That meant more than half the patients with high blood pressure measurements were still going unrecognized”, even with an EMR alert, Dr. Brady said.


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