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.