The association between physician risk tolerance and imaging use in abdominal pain

Am J Emerg Med. 2009 Jun;27(5):552-7. doi: 10.1016/j.ajem.2008.04.031.


Objective: We sought to determine the impact of 3 validated scales of physician risk behavior on imaging use in emergency department (ED) patients with abdominal pain.

Methods: We performed a prospective cohort study of nonpregnant ED patients with acute, nontraumatic abdominal pain and then administered 3 instruments (a risk-taking subscale of the Jackson Personality Index, the stress from uncertainty scale, and a malpractice fear scale) to attending physicians who had evaluated these patients and made decisions regarding abdominal imaging. Outcomes were the use of abdominal pelvic computed tomography (CT) and any imaging use (CT, ultrasound, or abdominal plain film). Hierarchical logistic regression was used to determine the effect of risk scales on abdominal imaging use.

Results: Of 838 patients with acute abdominal pain, 487 (58%) received imaging studies; 395 (47%) received an CT, 111 (13%) ultrasound, and 122 (15%) an abdominal plain film. Both CT and any imaging use were lower among the physicians who were least risk-averse as measured by the risk-taking subscale (highest quartiles vs 3 lower quartiles). In adjusted analysis, probability of CT in the least risk-averse group was 35% (95% confidence interval [CI], 28%-44%) compared to 50% (95% CI, 45%-54%) among more risk-averse physicians, and the probability of any imaging was 53% (95% CI, 44%-61%) compared to 64% (95% CI, 61%-68%). Malpractice fear and stress due to uncertainty were not predictive of imaging use.

Conclusion: Self-reported physician risk-taking behavior predicts the use of imaging in ED patients with abdominal pain, whereas malpractice fear and stress due to uncertainty do not.

MeSH terms

  • Abdominal Pain / diagnosis*
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Decision Making*
  • Diagnostic Imaging / statistics & numerical data*
  • Emergency Service, Hospital
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Outcome Assessment, Health Care
  • Physicians / psychology*
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians' / statistics & numerical data*
  • Prospective Studies