Background: Diagnostic clinical prediction rules (CPRs) are developed to improve diagnosis or decrease diagnostic testing. Whether, and in what situations diagnostic CPRs improve upon clinical judgment is unclear.
Methods and findings: We searched MEDLINE, Embase and CINAHL, with supplementary citation and reference checking for studies comparing CPRs and clinical judgment against a current objective reference standard. We report 1) the proportion of study participants classified as not having disease who hence may avoid further testing and or treatment and 2) the proportion, among those classified as not having disease, who do (missed diagnoses) by both approaches. 31 studies of 13 medical conditions were included, with 46 comparisons between CPRs and clinical judgment. In 2 comparisons (4%), CPRs reduced the proportion of missed diagnoses, but this was offset by classifying a larger proportion of study participants as having disease (more false positives). In 36 comparisons (78%) the proportion of diagnoses missed by CPRs and clinical judgment was similar, and in 9 of these, the CPRs classified a larger proportion of participants as not having disease (fewer false positives). In 8 comparisons (17%) the proportion of diagnoses missed by the CPRs was greater. This was offset by classifying a smaller proportion of participants as having the disease (fewer false positives) in 2 comparisons. There were no comparisons where the CPR missed a smaller proportion of diagnoses than clinical judgment and classified more participants as not having the disease. The design of the included studies allows evaluation of CPRs when their results are applied independently of clinical judgment. The performance of CPRs, when implemented by clinicians as a support to their judgment may be different.
Conclusions: In the limited studies to date, CPRs are rarely superior to clinical judgment and there is generally a trade-off between the proportion classified as not having disease and the proportion of missed diagnoses. Differences between the two methods of judgment are likely the result of different diagnostic thresholds for positivity. Which is the preferred judgment method for a particular clinical condition depends on the relative benefits and harms of true positive and false positive diagnoses.