BACKGROUND - In the evaluation of the cervical spine (c-spine), helical CT scan has higher sensitivity and specificity than plain radiographs in the moderate- and high-risk trauma population, but is more costly. We hypothesize that institutional costs associated with missed injuries make helical CT scan the least costly approach.
STUDY DESIGN - A cost-minimization study was performed using decision analysis examining helical CT scan versus radiographic evaluation of the c-spine. Parameter estimates were obtained from the literature for probability of c-spine injury, probability of paralysis after missed injury, plain film sensitivity and specificity, CT scan sensitivity and specificity, and settlement cost of missed injuries resulting in paralysis. Institutional costs of CT scan and plain radiography were used. Sensitivity analyses tested robustness of strategy preference, accounted for parameter variability, and determined threshold values for individual parameters on strategy preference.
RESULTS - C-spine evaluation with helical CT scan has an expected cost of US 554 dollars per patient compared with US 2,142 dollars for plain films. CT scan is the least costly alternative if threshold values exceed US 58,180 dollars for institutional settlement costs, 0.9% for probability of c-spine fracture, and 1.7% for probability of paralysis. Plain films are least costly if CT scan costs surpass US 1,918 dollars or plain film sensitivity exceeds 90%.
CONCLUSIONS - Helical CT scan is the preferred initial screening test for detection of cervical spine fractures among moderate- to high-risk patients seen in urban trauma centers, reducing the incidence of paralysis resulting from false-negative imaging studies and institutional costs, when settlement costs are taken into account.