Objectives: To review systematically the evidence on the performance of diagnostic tests used to identify infection in diabetic foot ulcers (DFUs) and of interventions to treat infected DFUs. To use estimates derived from the systematic reviews to create a decision analytic model in order to identify the most effective method of diagnosing and treating infection and to identify areas of research that would lead to large reductions in clinical uncertainty.
Data sources: Electronic databases covering period from inception of the database to November 2002.
Review methods: Selected studies were assessed against validated criteria and described in a narrative review. The structure of a decision analytic model was derived for two groups of patients in whom diagnostic tests were likely to be used.
Results: Three studies that investigated the performance of diagnostic tests for infection on populations including people with DFUs found that there was no evidence that single items on a clinical examination checklist were reliable in identifying infection in DFUs, that wound swabs perform poorly against wound biopsies, and that semi-quantitative analysis of wound swabs may be a useful alternative to quantitative analysis. However, few people with DFUs were included, so it was not possible to tell whether diagnostic performance differs for DFUs relative to wounds of other aetiologies. Twenty-three studies investigated the effectiveness (n = 23) or cost-effectiveness (n = 2) of antimicrobial agents for DFUs. Eight studied intravenous antibiotics, five oral antibiotics, four different topical agents such as dressings, four subcutaneous granulocyte colony stimulating factor (G-CSF), one evaluated oral and topical Ayurvedic preparations and one compared topical sugar versus antibiotics versus standard care. The majority of trials were underpowered and were too dissimilar to be pooled. There was no strong evidence for recommending any particular antimicrobial agent for the prevention of amputation, resolution of infection or ulcer healing. Topical pexiganan cream may be as effective as oral antibiotic treatment with ofloxacin for the resolution of local infection. Ampicillin and sulbactam were less costly than imipenem and cilastatin, a growth factor (G-CSF) was less costly than standard care and cadexomer iodine dressings may be less costly than daily dressings. A decision analytic model was derived for two groups of people, those for whom diagnostic testing would inform treatment--people with ulcers which do not appear infected but whose ulcer is not progressing despite optimal concurrent treatment--and those in whom a first course of antibiotics (prescribed empirically) have failed. There was insufficient information from the systematic reviews or interviews with experts to populate the model with transition probabilities for the sensitivity and specificity of diagnosis of infection in DFUs. Similarly, there was insufficient information on the probabilities of healing, amputation or death in the intervention studies for the two populations of interest. Therefore, we were unable to run the model to inform the most effective diagnostic and treatment strategy.
Conclusions: The available evidence is too weak to be able to draw reliable implications for practice. This means that, in terms of diagnosis, infection in DFUs cannot be reliably identified using clinical assessment. This has implications for determining which patients need formal diagnostic testing for infection, on whether empirical treatment with antibiotics (before the results of diagnostic tests are available) leads to better outcomes, and on identifying the optimal methods of diagnostic testing. With respect to treatment, it is not known whether treatment with systemic or local antibiotics leads to better outcomes or whether any particular agent is more effective. Limited evidence suggests that both G-CSF and cadexomer iodine dressings may be less expensive than 'standard' care, that ampicillin/sulbactam may be less costly than imipenem/cilastatin, and that an unlicensed cream (pexiganan) may be as effective as oral ofloxacin. Further research is needed to ascertain the characteristics of infection in people with DFUs that influence healing and amputation outcomes, to determine whether detecting infection prior to treatment offers any benefit over empirical therapy, and to establish the most effective and cost-effective methods for detecting infection, as well as the relative effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of antimicrobial interventions for DFU infection.