Ordering Characteristics Predictive of Noncontrast CT Head Positivity in the Emergency Department

      Rationale and Objectives

      Recent decades have seen a steady increase in noncontrast head CT utilization in the emergency department with a concurrent rise in the practice of physician assistants (PAs) and nurse practitioners (NPs). The goal of this study was to identify ordering and patient characteristics predictive of positive noncontrast head CTs in the ED. We hypothesized NP/PAs would have lower positivity rates compared to physicians, suggestive of relative overutilization.

      Materials and Methods

      We retrospectively identified ED patients who underwent noncontrast head CTs at a single institution: a nonlevel 1 trauma center, during a 7-year period, recording examination positivity, ordering provider training/experience, and multiple additional ordering/patient attributes. Exam positivity was defined as any intracranial abnormality necessitating a change in acute management, such as acute hemorrhage, hydrocephalus, herniation, or worsening prior findings.


      6624 patients met inclusion criteria. 4.6% (280/6107) of physician exams were positive while 3.7% (19/517) of NP/PA exams were positive; however, differences were not significant. Increasing provider experience was not associated with positivity. Attributes with increased positivity were patient age (p < 0.001), daytime exam (p < 0.05), and indications regarding malignancy (p < 0.001) or focal neurologic deficit (p = 0.001). Attributes with decreased positivity were indications of trauma (p < 0.001) or vertigo/dizziness (p < 0.05).


      We found no significant difference in rates of exam positivity between physicians and NP/PAs, even accounting for years of experience. This suggests increasing utilization of head CTs in the ED is not due to the increasing presence of NP/PAs, and may be reflective of general practice trends and clear diagnostic algorithms leading to head CT.

      Key Words

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