Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Test is Not the Truth: One Week in the Lonely Life of a Bayesian Clinician

If there is one thing you should remember about clinical decision making it is this:  the test is not the truth.  A diagnostic test raises or decreases the prior or pre-test probability (PTP) of the disease under consideration.  The amount of increase or decrease in probability with a positive or negative test depends on the starting probability and the likelihood ratio of the test.  (LR+ = sensitivity/1-specificity; LR- = 1-sensitivity/specificity).  If we don't attend to the PTP of disease, serious diagnostic errors and therapeutic misadventures may result.  This is especially true when a low PTP disease is diagnosed on the basis of a test with poor sensitivity and specificity (and a LR not much greater than 1 or 2 or even 4 or 5).  Several examples of this came up a while back.

A woman presented with thunderclap headache and had recurrent seizures during initial evaluation.  A differential diagnosis was formulated and it included PRES (posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome) with a PTP of about 20%.  Subarachnoid hemorrhage was excluded with CT and LP and the PTP of PRES rose to about 40% (since it occupied some of the probability space previously occupied by SAH once the latter was excluded.)  The subsequent MRI images were consistent with PRES.  Nonetheless, a vascular MRI was ordered to "exclude the possibility of cerebral vasculitis".  The problems are twofold.  First, the probability of PRES is now on the order of 70% if the sensitivity and specificity of MRI are on the order of 80%, and it is 85% if sensitivity and specificity are each 90%.  (Go ahead and plug some numbers into the calculator on the sidebar of the blog.)  This probability meets or exceeds the probability threshold to both consider the diagnosis made, and to take action based on it.  In this case inaction and supportive care are indicated.  Even if a vascular MRI were consistent with cerebral vasculitis, which has a PTP an order of magnitude or more less than PRES, the diagnosis is still PRES.  The truth is not in the test, the truth is in the rationally considered diagnostic process of which the test is one part.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Pitfalls of Protocols: Pushing the Limits of Extubation

A recent post described extubating an asthmatic patient with very bad weaning parameters, and I promised to provide a followup telling whether he "flew" or not.

He flew.

It was a nail-biting experience and for the first hour it was unclear if he was going to make it.  His respiratory rate settled down into the teens which was reassuring, but he did not gain lucidity for quite a while and was intermittently midly "combative" and uncooperative.  He was on HFNC with oxygen saturations in the high 80s and low 90s, and he remained tachycardic and was wheezing.  His wife and the nurse were continuously in the room reassuring him, as were several doctors during the first hour or two.  During the course of several hours, he was able to be weaned to simple face mask and then nasal cannula and the next day he was discharged from the ICU.

If we had followed some sort of "weaning protocol" with blind faith, I don't know how long it would have been before he would have "passed" the protocol's tests and been extubated.  At some point, somebody would have said, "Hey, we better stray here, or we'll never get him extubated."

Friday, January 25, 2019

Limits of the Possible: Clinical Reasoning of a Harrowing Extubation

"The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible."  -  Clark's Second Law

In prior posts here and on the Medical Evidence Blog (here, here, here, and here), I have outlined my position that the only way you can really know if a patient can breathe on their own is to let them try - a "trial of extubation".  Prediction equations get you published, but their signal to noise ratio is often poor and ignored, to patients' peril.  Indeed the reason I'm obsessed with extubation is because I think being intubated unnecessarily is one of the worst things a patient can endure, and the best thing I can do as an intensivist is identify the earliest moment when a patient can breathe on his own and extubate him.

I faced a very harrowing extubation decision recently, and I admitted to the medical students that it was the most nail-biting of my career.  But I think analyzing it, both before and after the fact can be very instructive.