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Stanford University School of Medicine

Studying the best approach to diagnosing appendicitis in pregnant women

When it comes to pregnant women, managing abdominal pain and diagnosing appendicitis can be a tricky proposition for doctors. Current practice includes an ultrasound followed by further imaging if the diagnosis remains unclear, but some providers and patients are hesitant to use one common imaging tool - a CT scan. That's because of its use of radiation, and its possible risk to the fetus.

Zachary Kastenberg, MD, is a general surgery resident at Stanford and reports that he and his colleagues encounter this issue relatively frequently in the emergency department. “We often find ourselves guiding expecting mothers and fathers through difficult, anxiety-provoking decisions with minimal evidence to support differing practitioner perspectives,” he recently told me, noting that acute appendicitis is the most common cause of non-obstetric surgery in pregnant women.

Kastenberg said he wanted to help “influence the management and diagnosis of abdominal pain in pregnant women and to inform practitioners regarding the relative risks of abdominal imaging and fetal radiation during pregnancy.” And so he and colleagues performed a comprehensive cost-effectiveness analysis of the diagnostic strategies for appendicitis during pregnancy. Using a computer-based model, the researchers examined the costs and short- and long-term risks of the interventions, and various quality-of-life measures across the lifetime of a cohort of 25-year-old mothers-to-be and their fetuses.

What the researchers found was that in the vast majority of cases, preoperative imaging is the most prudent choice for managing pregnant women with suspected appendicitis. They also determined that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) - which doesn't involve radiation - is the most cost-effective diagnostic strategy, and that CT – even when taking into consideration the potential risks of radiation-associated childhood cancer – is a cost-effective option when MRI isn’t available. The latter finding is particularly important for those hospitals (usually smaller or rural ones) that don't have an MRI machine or access to skilled MRI interpretation at night or on weekends.

Kastenberg acknowledged that patients may still experience anxiety associated with radiation exposure. But he says he hopes the analysis “will give physicians the confidence to guide patients through an educated discussion of the risks and benefits of preoperative imaging, including CT, when confronted with this difficult clinical situation.”

Kastenberg is a post-doctoral fellow in Stanford's Center for Health Policy and the Center for Primary Care and Outcomes Research. The research appears in the October issue of the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Photo by Daquella Manera

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