From the Journals

Are diagnosticians chasing COVID-linked zebras and missing horses?


The emergence of multiple inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) in association with COVID-19 may be complicating the investigation and diagnosis of more common viral and bacterial infections, potentially delaying treatment and prolonging hospital stays.

Two recent articles published online in Hospital Pediatrics provide evidence of this phenomenon. The articles outlined case studies of children who underwent extensive investigation for MIS-C when in fact they had less severe and more common infections. MIS-C is a severe but rare syndrome that involves systemic hyperinflammation with fever and multisystem organ dysfunction similar to that of Kawasaki disease (KD).

In one of the articles, Matthew Molloy, MD, MPH, of the division of pediatric hospital medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, and colleagues aptly asked: “What are we missing in our search for MIS-C?”

E. coli, not SARS-CoV-2

That question arose from a case involving a 3-year-old boy who had a 6-day history of fever and fatigue. Three days earlier, he had tested negative for strep antigen and COVID-19. He had a persistent, high fever, reduced appetite, and reduced urine output and was taken to the ED. On physical examination, there was no rash, skin peeling, redness of the eye or oral mucosa, congestion, rhinorrhea, cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.

Urinalysis results and exam findings were suspicious for pyelonephritis. Other findings from an extensive laboratory workup raised the alarm that the boy was suffering from MIS-C as opposed to incomplete KD. After admission to hospital medicine, the cardiology, rheumatology, and infectious disease teams were called in to consult.

Repeat labs were planned for the following day before initiating therapy. On day 2, the child’s urine culture was positive for gram-negative rods, later identified as Escherichia coli. The boy was started on ceftriaxone. Left renal scarring was apparent on ultrasound. The patient’s condition resolved after 36 hours, and he was discharged home with antibiotics.

‘Diagnosis derailed’

Calling this a case of “diagnosis derailed,” the authors noted that, in the pre-COVID era, this child’s signs and symptoms would likely have triggered a more targeted and less costly evaluation for more common infectious and noninfectious causes, including pyelonephritis, absent any physical exam findings consistent with KD.

“However, the patient presented in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic with growing awareness of a new clinical entity,” Dr. Molloy and colleagues wrote. “Anchored to the patient’s persistent fever, the medical team initiated an extensive, costly, and ultimately unnecessary workup to avoid missing the diagnosis of MIS-C; a not yet well-described diagnosis with potentially severe morbidity.”

Confirmation bias and diagnostic momentum likely contributed to the early focus on MIS-C rather than more common alternatives, the authors acknowledged. The addition of mildly abnormal laboratory data not typically obtained in the evaluation of fever led the team astray. “The diagnosis and definitive treatment may have been made earlier had the focus on concern for MIS-C not been present,” Dr. Molloy said in an interview.

Keeping value in care

The authors recognized that their initial approach to evaluating for MIS-C provided low-value care. “In our desire to not ‘miss’ MIS-C, we were performing costly evaluations that at times produced mildly abnormal, nonspecific results,” they wrote. That triggered a cascade of specialty consultations, follow-up testing, and an unwarranted diagnostic preoccupation with MIS-C.

Determining the extra price tag for the child’s workup would be complex and difficult because there is a difference in the cost to the hospital and the cost to the family, Dr. Molloy said. “However, there are potential cost savings that would be related to making a correct diagnosis in a timely manner in terms of preventing downstream effects from delayed diagnoses.”

Even as clinicians struggle with the challenging SARS-CoV-2 learning curve, Dr. Molloy and associates urged them to continue to strive for high-value care, with an unwavering focus on using only necessary resources, a stewardship the pandemic has shown to be critical.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been an incredibly stressful time for physicians and for families,” Dr. Molloy said. “COVID-19 and related conditions like MIS-C are new, and we are learning more and more about them every week. These diagnoses are understandably on the minds of physicians and families when children present with fever.” Notwithstanding, the boy’s case underscores the need for clinicians to consider alternate diagnoses and the value of the care provided.

Impact of bias

Dr. Molloy’s group brings home the cognitive biases practitioners often suffer from, including anchoring and confirmation bias and diagnostic momentum, according to J. Howard Smart, MD, chief of pediatrics at Sharp Mary Birch Hospital for Women and Newborns, San Diego, and an assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at University of California, San Diego.

“But it is one thing to recognize these in retrospect and quite another to consider whether they may be happening to you yourself in real time,” he said in an interview. “It is almost as if we need to have a ‘time out,’ where we stop and ask ourselves whether there is something else that could be explaining our patient’s presentation, something that would be more common and more likely to be occurring.”

According to Dr. Smart, who was not involved in Dr. Molloy’s study, the team’s premature diagnostic focus on MIS-C was almost the inverse of what typically happens with KD. “It is usually the case that Kawasaki disease does not enter the differential diagnosis until late in the course of the fever, typically on day 5 or later, when it may have been better to think of it earlier,” he said.

In the second article, Andrea Dean, MD, of the department of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, both in Houston, and colleagues outlined the cases of five patients aged 8-17 years who were hospitalized in May 2020 for suspected MIS-C. They exhibited inflammatory and other concerning indicators but were eventually discharged with a diagnosis of murine typhus.

This flea-borne infection, most commonly reported in the United States in the southeastern Gulf Coast region, Hawaii, and California, is often associated with a triad of fever, rash, and headache.

Cases have been rising in southern Texas, and Dr. Dean and colleagues postulated that school closures and social distancing may have increased exposure as a result of children spending more time outdoors or with pets. “Alternatively, parental concern for SARS-CoV-2 infection could mean children with symptoms are presenting to care and being referred or admitted to the hospital more frequently due to provider concern for MIS-C,” they wrote.


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