Objective: To, assess the emergency department use of cervical spine radiography for alert, stable adult trauma patients in terms of utilization, yield for injury and variation in practices among hospitals and physicians.
Design: Retrospective survey of health records.
Setting: Emergency departments of 6 teaching and 2 community hospitals in Ontario and British Columbia.
Patients: Consecutive alert, stable adult trauma patients seen with potential cervical spine injury between July 1, 1994, and June 30, 1995.
Main outcome measures: Total number of eligible patients, referral for cervical spine radiography (overall, by hospital and by physician), presence of cervical spine injury, patient characteristics and hospitals associated with use of radiography.
Results: Of 6855 eligible patients, cervical spine radiography was ordered for 3979 (58.0%). Only 60 (0.9%) patients were found to have an acute cervical spine injury (fracture, dislocation or ligamentous instability); 98.5% of the radiographic films were negative for any significant abnormality. The demographic and clinical characteristics of the patients were similar across the 8 hospitals, and no cervical spine injuries were missed. Significant variation was found among the 8 hospitals in the rate of ordering radiography (p < 0.0001), from a low of 37.0% to a high of 72.5%. After possible differences in case severity and patient characteristics at each hospital were controlled for, logistic regression analysis revealed that 6 of the hospitals were significantly associated with the use of radiography. At 7 hospitals, there was significant variation in the rate of ordering radiography among the attending emergency physicians (p < 0.05), from a low of 15.6% to a high of 91.5%.
Conclusions: Despite considerable variation among institutions and individual physicians in the ordering of cervical spine radiography for alert, stable trauma patients with similar characteristics, no cervical spine injuries were missed. The number of radiographic films showing signs of abnormality was extremely low at all hospitals. The findings suggest that cervical spine radiography could be used more efficiently, possibly with the help of a clinical decision rule.