Clinical Diagnosis of Infection in Surgical Intensive Care Unit: You're Not as Good as You Think!

Madhu Subramanian, Carol Hirschkorn, Stephanie A. Eyerly-Webb, Rachele J. Solomon, Erica I. Hodgman, Rafael E. Sanchez, Dafney L. Davare, Danielle A. Pigneri, Chauniqua Kiffin, Andrew A. Rosenthal, Fernando E. Pedraza Taborda, Juan D. Arenas, Sara A. Hennessy, Joseph P. Minei, Christian T. Minshall, Tjasa Hranjec

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Background: Because of the everincreasing costs and the complexity of institutional medical reimbursement policies, the necessity for extensive laboratory work-up of potentially infected patients has come into question. We hypothesized that intensivists are able to differentiate between infected and non-infected patients clinically, without the need to pan-culture, and are able to identify the location of the infection clinically in order to administer timely and appropriate treatment. Methods: Data collected prospectively on critically ill patients suspected of having an infection in the surgical intensive care unit (SICU) was obtained over a six-month period in a single tertiary academic medical center. Objective evidence of infection derived from laboratory or imaging data was compared with the subjective answers of the three most senior physicians' clinical diagnoses. Results: Thirty-nine critically ill surgical patients received 52 work-ups for suspected infections on the basis of signs and symptoms (e.g., fever, altered mental status). Thirty patients were found to be infected. Clinical diagnosis differentiated infected and non-infected patients with only 61.5% accuracy (sensitivity 60.3%; specificity 64.4%; p = 0.0049). Concordance between physicians was poor (κ = 0.33). Providers were able to predict the infectious source correctly only 60% of the time. Utilization of culture/objective data and SICU antibiotic protocols led to overall 78% appropriate initiation of antibiotics compared with 48% when treatment was based on clinical evaluation alone. Conclusion: Clinical diagnosis of infection is difficult, inaccurate, and unreliable in the absence of culture and sensitivity data. Infection suspected on the basis of signs and symptoms should be confirmed via objective and thorough work-up.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)122-129
Number of pages8
JournalSurgical Infections
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Surgery
  • Microbiology (medical)
  • Infectious Diseases


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