This systematic review evaluated the effectiveness of professional and organizational interventions aimed at improving medical processes, such as documentation or clinical assessments by health care providers, in the care of pediatric emergency department (ED) patients where abuse was suspected.
A search of electronic databases, references, key journals/conference proceedings was conducted and primary authors contacted. Studies whose purpose was to evaluate a strategy aimed at improving ED clinical care of suspected abuse were included. Study methodological quality was assessed by two independent reviewers. One reviewer extracted the data and a second checked for completeness and accuracy.
Six studies met the inclusion criteria: one randomized (RCT) and one quasi-randomized trial (qRCT), and four observational studies. Study quality ranged from modest (observational studies) to good (trials). Variation in study interventions and outcomes limited between study comparisons. One qRCT supported self-instructional education kits as a means to improve physician knowledge for both physical abuse (mean pre-test score: 13.12, SD 2.36; mean post-test score: 18.16, SD 1.64) and sexual abuse (mean pre-test score: 10.81, SD 3.20; mean post-test score: 18.45, SD 1.79). Modest quality observational studies evaluated reminder systems for physician documentation with similar results across studies. Compared to standard practice, chart checklists paired with an educational program increased physician consideration of non-accidental burns in burn cases (59% increase), documentation of time of injury (36% increase), as well as documentation of consistency (53% increase) and compatibility (55% increase) of reported histories. Decisional flowcharts for suspected physical abuse also increased documentation of non-accidental physical injury (69.5% increase; p<0.0001) and had a similar significant impact as checklists on increasing documentation of history consistency and compatibility (69.5% and 70.0% increases, respectively; p<0.0001) when compared to standard practice. No improvements were noted in these studies for documentation of consultations or current status with child protective services. The introduction of a specialized team and crisis center to standardize practice had little effect on physician documentation, but did increase documentation of child protective services involvement (22.7% increase; p<0.005) and discharge status (23.7% increase; p<0.02). Referral to social services increased in one study following the introduction of a chart checklist (8.6% increase; p=0.018). A recently conducted multi-site RCT did not support observational findings, reporting no significant effect of educational sessions and/or a chart checklist on ED practices.
The small number of studies identified in this review highlights the need for future studies that address care of a vulnerable clinical population. While moderate quality observational studies suggested education and reminder systems increased clinical knowledge and documentation, these findings were not supported by a single randomized trial. The limited theoretical base for conceptualizing change in health care providers and the influence of the ED environment on clinical practice are limitations to this current evidence base.