Importance: Routine use of pulse oximetry has been associated with changes in bronchiolitis management and may have lowered the hospitalization threshold for patients with bronchiolitis.
Objective: To examine if infants with bronchiolitis whose displayed oximetry measurements have been artificially elevated 3 percentage points above true values experience hospitalization rates at least 15% lower compared with infants with true values displayed.
Design, setting, and participants: Randomized, double-blind, parallel-group trial conducted from 2008 to 2013 in a tertiary-care pediatric emergency department in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Participants were 213 otherwise healthy infants aged 4 weeks to 12 months with mild to moderate bronchiolitis and true oxygen saturations of 88% or higher.
Interventions: Pulse oximetry measurements with true saturation values displayed or with altered saturation values displayed that have been increased 3 percentage points above true values.
Main outcomes and measures: The primary outcome was hospitalization within 72 hours, defined as inpatient admission within this interval or active hospital care for greater than 6 hours. Secondary outcomes included the use of supplemental oxygen in the emergency department, level of physician agreement with discharge from the emergency department, length of emergency department stay, and unscheduled visits for bronchiolitis within 72 hours.
Results: Forty-four of 108 patients (41%) in the true oximetry group and 26 of 105 (25%) in the altered oximetry group were hospitalized within 72 hours (difference, 16% [95% CI for the difference, 3.6% to 28.4%]; P = .005). Using the emergency department physician as a random effect, the primary treatment effect remained significant (adjusted odds ratio, 4.0 [95% CI, 1.6 to 10.5]; P = .009). None of the secondary outcomes were significantly different between the groups. There were 23 of 108 (21.3%) subsequent unscheduled medical visits for bronchiolitis in the true oximetry group and 15 of 105 (14.3%) in the altered oximetry group (difference, 7% [95% CI, -0.3% to 0.2%]; P = .18).
Conclusions and relevance: Among infants presenting to an emergency department with mild to moderate bronchiolitis, those with an artificially elevated pulse oximetry reading were less likely to be hospitalized within 72 hours or to receive active hospital care for more than 6 hours than those with unaltered oximetry readings. This suggests that oxygen saturation should not be the only factor in the decision to admit, and its use may need to be reevaluated.
Trial registration: clinicaltrials.gov Identifier: NCT00673946.