Playing by the Rules: Using Decision Rules Wisely Part 1, Trauma

In part 1 of this 2-part review, the authors discuss validated trauma-related clinical decision rules most commonly used in the ED, and provide useful pearls and pitfalls pertaining to their use.

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Emergency physicians (EPs) rely on rapid diagnostic testing to help screen patients for illnesses. While the decision to order a test for a patient should be driven by an objective assessment of pretest probability, other factors such as fear of litigation, clinical inexperience, or desire for increased patient satisfaction can prompt testing even when the likelihood of disease is low. This in turn leads to practice variability, increased cost, and decreased ED throughput, as well as other risks attendant to overtesting and overtreatment. Conversely, practitioners may fail to order necessary tests despite the presence of high-risk clinical features, which in turn may lead to misdiagnoses and delay in initiating life-saving treatments.

Development of Decision Rules

Clinical decision rules seek to decrease resource utilization in instances of low probability of disease and to identify high-risk features that should prompt further investigation. The formation of clinical decision rules entails at least three steps, which Ian Stiell, MD, emergency medicine’s (EM’s) most prolific author of these instruments, describes as follows:

  • Creation of the rule or derivation;
  • Prospective assessment of the reliability, accuracy, and impact of the rule in a validation study; and
  • Gauging the effect of the rule on patient care through an implementation study.1

In addition to these three steps, many clinicians argue that there should also be an important fourth step included in this process: the external validation or assessment of the rule outside of the original study site(s), to assure reliability of the rule across a variety of populations for which its use was intended.2

Critiques and Caveats

A common critique of clinical decision rules is that they may not necessarily outperform subjective physician judgment, and that those who create these rules often do not explicitly compare their instruments against independent unassisted decision-making by clinicians.2,3

Another drawback is that the misapplication of these rules can lead to increased testing, something particularly problematic for one-way rules, which only guide the provider in a single clinical direction. An example of a one-way rule is the Pulmonary Embolism Rule-Out Criteria (PERC), which advises that a low-risk patient who does not have any of the PERC factors will not require any further testing. This, however, does not necessarily mean that further testing is indicated in patients who have one of the PERC factors present.2 Thus, applying PERC and other one-way decision-making rules in a two-way fashion can prompt testing that would not be ordered based on clinician gestalt. Rules that are designed to help determine when testing is necessary and when it is unnecessary are referred to as two-way rules, an example of which is the Ottawa Ankle Rule.

Controversies aside, the incorporation of clinical decision rules in the electronic medical record of many institutions and the proliferation of smartphone applications utilizing these instruments have further cemented their place in EM. This article describes the more commonly used ED clinical decision rules, as well as pearls and pitfalls pertaining to their use. Part 1 that follows covers important validated rules related to trauma patients in the ED. Part 2, which will appear in an upcoming 2018 issue, will cover nontrauma medical-diagnosis decision rules, including pulmonary embolism, and pneumonia.

Head Trauma

The increased utilization of computed tomography (CT) studies to assess for minor blunt head trauma spurred the development of clinical decision rules. In adult patients, the most popular and well-studied instruments are the New Orleans Criteria (NOC), the Canadian CT Head Rule (CCHR), and the National Emergency X-Radiography Utilization Study (NEXUS) CT Head Rule.

New Orleans Criteria

The NOC validation cohort examined over 900 cases at a single trauma center, enrolling all patients 3 years of age and older who had suffered minor head trauma (defined as loss of consciousness (LOC) in a patient with grossly normal neurological examination and a Glasgow Coma Scale [GCS] score of 15), in the preceding 24 hours.4 Patients who experienced no LOC, had focal neurological deficit (except isolated short-term memory deficits), or who did not have any CT study performed, were excluded.

The NOC describes seven factors for consideration:

  • Short-term memory deficits;
  • Intoxication with drugs or alcohol;
  • Physical evidence of trauma above the clavicles;
  • Patients older than age 60 years;
  • Seizure;
  • Headache; and
  • Vomiting.


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