Use of imaging in the emergency department: physicians have limited effect on variation

Radiology. 2013 Sep;268(3):779-89. doi: 10.1148/radiol.13130972. Epub 2013 Jun 25.


Purpose: To quantify interphysician variation in imaging use during emergency department (ED) visits and examine the contribution of factors to this variation at the patient, visit, and physician level.

Materials and methods: This study was HIPAA compliant and approved by the institutional review board of Partners Healthcare System (Boston, Mass), with waiver of informed consent. In this retrospective study of 88 851 consecutive ED visits during 2011 at a large urban teaching hospital, a hierarchical logistic regression model was used to identify multiple predictors for the probability that low- or high-cost imaging would be ordered during a given visit. Physician-specific random effects were estimated to articulate (by odds ratio) and quantify (by intraclass correlation coefficient [ICC]) interphysician variation.

Results: Patient- and visit-level factors found to be statistically significant predictors of imaging use included measures of ED busyness, prior ED visit, referral source to the ED, and ED arrival mode. Physician-level factors (eg, sex, years since graduation, annual workload, and residency training) did not correlate with imaging use. The remaining amount of interphysician variation was very low (ICC, 0.97% for low-cost imaging; ICC, 1.07% for high-cost imaging). These physician-specific odds ratios of imaging estimates were moderately reliable at 0.78 (95% confidence interval [CI]: 0.77, 0.79) for low-cost imaging and 0.76 (95% CI: 0.74, 0.78) for high-cost imaging.

Conclusion: After careful and comprehensive case-mix adjustment by using hierarchical logistic regression, only about 1% of the variability in ED imaging utilization was attributable to physicians.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Boston / epidemiology
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Diagnostic Imaging / statistics & numerical data*
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians' / statistics & numerical data*
  • Utilization Review*
  • Young Adult