Significant racial and ethnic differences in diagnostic imaging rates exist among children receiving care in pediatric EDs across the United States, Jennifer R. Marin, MD, of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, and associates reported.
Specifically, visits with non-Hispanic Black and Hispanic patients less frequently included radiography, CT, ultrasonography, and MRI than those of non-Hispanic White patients. The findings persisted across most diagnostic groups, even when stratified according to insurance type, Marin and colleagues reported in a multicenter cross-sectional study in JAMA Network Open.
The authors collected administrative data from the Pediatric Health Information System on 44 tertiary care children’s hospitals in 17 major metropolitan areas across the United States. They evaluated a total of 13,087,522 ED visits by 6,230,911 patients that occurred between Jan. 1, 2016, and Dec. 31, 2019. Of these, 28.2% included at least one imaging study. Altogether, 33.5% were performed on non-Hispanic White children, compared with just 24.1% of non-Hispanic Black children (adjusted odds ratio, 0.82) and 26.1% of Hispanic children (aOR, 0.87). After adjusting for relevant confounding factors, non-Hispanic Black and Hispanic children were less likely to have any imaging at all during their visits.
“Our findings suggest that a child’s race and ethnicity may be independently associated with the decision to perform imaging during ED visits,” Marin and associates said, adding that “the differential use of diagnostic imaging by race/ethnicity may reflect underuse of imaging in non-Hispanic Black and Hispanic children, or alternatively, overuse in non-Hispanic White children.”
Overuse vs Underuse: Racial Bias or Parental Anxiety?
Overuse of imaging carries its own risks, but underuse can lead to misdiagnosis, the need for additional care, and possibly worse outcomes in the long run, Marin and colleagues explained. “Although we were unable to discern underuse from overuse using an administrative database, it is likely that much of the imaging in White children is unnecessary.”
Higher parental anxiety was just one of the explanations the authors offered for excessive imaging in White children. Especially in cases of diagnostic imaging for head trauma, one survey of adult ED patients showed that the peace of mind CT offers with its more definitive diagnosis was worth the additional possible risk of radiation.
Language barriers in non–English-speaking patients may also affect likelihood of testing as part of an ED visit.
Implicit physician racial bias, which can be amplified under the stress of working in an ED, can affect patient interactions, treatment decisions and adherence, and ultimately overall health outcomes, the authors noted. The goal in ensuring parity is to routinely follow clinical guidelines and use objective scoring tools that minimize subjectivity. At the institutional level, internal quality assurance evaluations go a long way toward understanding and limiting bias.
Historically, White patients are more likely than minority patients to have a medical home, which can influence whether ED physicians order imaging studies and whether imaging of White patients may have been triggered by a primary care physician referral, Marin and associates said.
In an accompanying editorial, Anupam B. Kharbanda, MD, said these findings are “consistent with decades of previous research documenting inequalities in health care delivery … [and] must be examined in the context of inequities within the social framework of a community.”
Going Back to the Drawing Board
“Physicians, researchers, and health care leaders must partner with the communities they serve to develop and implement interventions to address these substantial inequities in care,” said Kharbanda, pediatric emergency medicine physician at Children’s Minnesota Hospital, Minneapolis. As previous studies have demonstrated, implicit bias and antiracism training are needed to help physicians develop empathy so they are better equipped to help patients and families in a multicultural environment. Partnering with community-based organizations to ensure that care is more community centered, as has been done successfully within the Kaiser Permanente health system, for example, and employing a more diverse workforce that mirrors the populations cared for will go a long way.
Citing a 1966 speech of the late Martin Luther King, Jr., in which he said: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane,” Kharbanda urged clinicians to not only hear but believe these words and act on them by working in partnerships with the communities they serve.
In a separate interview, Walter Palmer, MD, pediatric emergency medicine fellow at Children’s National Medical Center, Washington, noted: “This study’s findings are disappointing and yet not at all unexpected, as the authors convincingly identify yet another step at which patients of color are treated unequally in the U.S. health care system. It highlights a frightening truth: That we are all at risk of letting invisible implicit biases impact our clinical decision-making process. This is especially true in the busy emergency department environment, where pressure to make swift decisions regarding diagnostic workup and management invites the influence of imperceptible biases. It is now incumbent upon us as health care providers to monitor our personal and departmental patterns of practice for areas in which we can improve racial health equity and become advocates for the children and families who entrust us with their care.”
The authors reported multiple financial disclosures. Kharbanda and Palmer had no conflicts of interest and reported no disclosures.
This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.