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Blacks, Hispanics and low-income kids with stomach aches treated differently in ERs

crying-613389_1280When a child arrives in the emergency room complaining of a stomach pain, appendicitis is the last thing you want to miss, says KT Park, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics.

"The question is, 'Does this patient have appendicitis - yes or no?," he said. It is the most common immediate emergency that could bring a child into the emergency room with abdominal pain. If not treated in a timely manner, the appendix can burst, leading to infection or a host of other serious complications.

But kids arrive in the emergency room complaining of stomach aches all the time; most with perfectly healthy appendices. And what if you're a doctor who has seen seven kids with more minor stomach problems one day? It might be tricky to spot that first case of appendicitis.

Unfortunately, misdiagnosis happens more often when the pediatric patient is black, Hispanic or low-income, according to a study published today in PLOS ONE led by Park and Stanford medical student Louise Wang.

"Our goal in this study is getting the word out about abdominal pain and appendicitis and the importance of the decisions made in the emergency room," Wang said.

The researchers analyzed national data from 2 million pediatric visits to emergency rooms between 2004 and 2011 complaining primarily of abdominal pain. They found that blacks, Hispanics and low-income children were less likely to receive imaging that could help their physicians diagnose serious conditions like appendicitis. These patients were also less likely to be admitted to the hospital, but more likely to suffer perforated appendicitis, a clue that perhaps they didn't receive adequate treatment in time, Park said. For example, low-income blacks were 65 percent more likely to have a perforated appendix compared to other children.

The study was not able to precisely determine why these disparities exist, Wang said. "What is the driving influence of these outcomes? Are these kids being mismanaged in the emergency department, or are they presenting at a later time in a more serious condition?," she asked.

She and Park have a few ideas, based on other findings and their personal experience. Minorities and low-income families are more likely to use the emergency room as a first-stop for more minor conditions, rather than visiting their primary care doctor or pediatrician.

"This is a very delicate topic," Park said. "Physicians are humans and there is potentially some intuitive thinking that goes on about the probabilities of various diagnoses more common in certain patient groups, potentially leading to differences in how clinicians perceive the acuity of a patient's status."

Appendicitis can be tricky to diagnose, a task made even harder when patients are young and unable to clearly describe their pain, Park said.

"The psychology of physicians is an area needing further evaluation," Park said. "We have internal biases that we often are not even aware of. We want to be objective, but it's never a black-and-white decision making tree."

Previously: A young child, a falling cabinet, and a Life Flight rescue, New test could lead to increase of women diagnosed with heart attack and Exploring how the Affordable Care Act has affected number of young adults visiting the ER
Photo by amandacatherine

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