Context: Fever in infants challenges clinicians in distinguishing between serious conditions, such as bacteremia or bacterial meningitis, and minor illnesses. To date, the practice patterns of office-based pediatricians in treating febrile infants and the clinical outcomes resulting from their care have not been systematically studied.
Objectives: To characterize the management and clinical outcomes of fever in infants, develop a clinical prediction model for the identification of bacteremia/bacterial meningitis, and compare the accuracy of various strategies.
Design: Prospective cohort study.
Setting: Offices of 573 practitioners from the Pediatric Research in Office Settings (PROS) network of the American Academy of Pediatrics in 44 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.
Patients: Consecutive sample of 3066 infants aged 3 months or younger with temperatures of at least 38 degrees C seen by PROS practitioners from February 28, 1995, through April 25, 1998.
Main outcome measures: Management strategies, illness frequency, and rates and accuracy of treating bacteremia/bacterial meningitis.
Results: The PROS clinicians hospitalized 36% of the infants, performed laboratory testing in 75%, and initially treated 57% with antibiotics. The majority (64%) were treated exclusively outside of the hospital. Bacteremia was detected in 1.8% of infants (2.4% of those tested) and bacterial meningitis in 0.5%. Well-appearing infants aged 25 days or older with fever of less than 38.6 degrees C had a rate of 0.4% for bacteremia/bacterial meningitis. Frequency of other illnesses included urinary tract infection, 5.4%; otitis media, 12.2%; upper respiratory tract infection, 25.6%; bronchiolitis, 7.8%; and gastroenteritis, 7.2%. Practitioners followed current guidelines in 42% of episodes. However, in the initial visit, they treated 61 of the 63 cases of bacteremia/bacterial meningitis with antibiotics. Neither current guidelines nor the model developed in this study performed with greater accuracy than observed practitioner management.
Conclusions: Pediatric clinicians in the United States use individualized clinical judgment in treating febrile infants. In this study, relying on current clinical guidelines would not have improved care but would have resulted in more hospitalizations and laboratory testing.