Increasing utilization of computed tomography in the adult emergency department, 2000-2005

Emerg Radiol. 2006 Oct;13(1):25-30. doi: 10.1007/s10140-006-0493-9. Epub 2006 Aug 10.


This study aims to characterize changes in computed tomography (CT) utilization in the adult emergency department (ED) over a 5-year period. CT scans ordered on adult ED patients from July 2000 to July 2005 were analyzed in five groups: head, cervical spine, chest, abdomen, and miscellaneous. ED patient volume and triage acuity scores were determined. Triage acuity scores are used to determine the severity of a patient's illness or injury and the need for immediate evaluation and treatment. There were 46,553 CT scans performed on 27,625 adult patients in the ED during the study period. During this same period, 194,622 adult patients were evaluated in the ED. From 2000 to 2005, the adult emergency department patient volume increased by 13% while triage acuity remained stable. During this same period, head CT increased by 51%, cervical spine CT by 463%, chest CT by 226%, abdominal CT by 72%, and miscellaneous CT by 132%. Although increases were generally greater for patients over age 40, the increase in those less than 40 years was also substantial. Of the 4,320 individual patients who underwent chest CT, 83 (2%) had chest CT on three or more separate ED visits. Of 10,960 patients undergoing abdominal CT, 406 (4%) had abdominal CT on three or more separate ED visits. ED CT utilization has increased at a rate far exceeding the growth in ED patient volume. This presumably reflects the improved utility of CT in diagnosing serious pathology, its increased availability, and a desire on the part of physicians for diagnostic certainty. Whether this increase in utilization results in improved patient outcomes is at present unclear and deserves additional study.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Cervical Vertebrae / diagnostic imaging
  • Emergency Service, Hospital* / trends
  • Female
  • Head / diagnostic imaging
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • North Carolina
  • Radiography, Abdominal / statistics & numerical data
  • Radiography, Abdominal / trends
  • Radiography, Thoracic / statistics & numerical data
  • Radiography, Thoracic / trends
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed / statistics & numerical data*
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed / trends