Clinicians appear to be too quick to perform antireflux procedures in infants, compared with older children, according to a report published online Nov. 6 in JAMA Surgery.
In a retrospective cohort study involving 141,190 pediatric and adolescent hospitalizations for gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) across the country over an 8-year period, the proportional hazard ratio of undergoing antireflux surgery was markedly decreased for those aged 7 months to 4 years (0.63) or 5-17 years (0.43), compared with those aged 0-2 months or 2-6 months.
The reasons for this strong difference are not yet known for certain, but the data showed a lack of objective diagnostic studies preceding the surgery in all pediatric age groups, and most strikingly in the youngest patients. It may well be that clinicians are confusing physiologic regurgitation – which is common, benign, and self-resolving in infancy – with a more pathologic process, said Dr. Jarod McAteer of the division of pediatric general and thoracic surgery, Seattle Children’s Hospital, and his associates.
At the very least, it appears that many infants aren’t given an adequate trial of medical management, since most cases of gastroesophageal reflux in infancy will resolve with that alone within 3-6 months, they noted.
"Referral for surgical treatment of GERD is generally presumed to be a last resort after failure of medical management, with optimal candidates having undergone specific preoperative evaluations," the authors wrote. Diagnostic and treatment guidelines are well delineated for adults, but not so for children.
For example, "upper GI fluoroscopy is frequently used in the preoperative workup among children with GERD," even though it has been clearly demonstrated to be a poor predictor of pathologic reflux, the investigators said.
In what they described as the first study to examine the influence of patient age on progression to antireflux procedures, Dr. McAteer and his colleagues analyzed data from the Pediatric Health Information System database, which includes demographic and clinical information from 41 children’s hospitals that cover 85% of major metropolitan areas in the U.S.
Out of 141,190 patients aged 0-7 years who were hospitalized with gastroesophageal reflux or GERD, 64% were younger than 1 year of age, and 53% were younger than 6 months. These numbers highlight how common the diagnosis is in babies, they said.
They also "suggest that physicians may be more likely to apply the diagnosis in this patient group because of diagnostic uncertainty or because other characteristics of these hospitalized infants make it more likely that any regurgitation is perceived as pathologic and indicative of GERD."
Examples of such "other characteristics" include comorbidities such as neurodevelopmental delay, cardiopulmonary disorders, seizures, asthma, and cerebral palsy.
A total of 11,621 of the study population underwent antireflux procedures, of which 52.7% were aged 6 months or younger. Only 14% of these patients had first undergone upper GI endoscopy, 0.2% esophageal manometry, 1.3% a 24-hour esophageal pH study, 65% upper GI fluoroscopy, and 17.1% a gastric emptying study, the investigators said (JAMA Surg. 2013 Nov. 6 [doi: 10.1001/jamasurg.2013.2685]).
The study findings show that the threshold for performing antireflux procedures is lower in infants than in older children. And "despite the fact that expert guidelines urge the use of objective studies in the diagnosis of GERD and despite evidence that supports the use of objective studies before performing antireflux procedures, such a standardized evaluation is not common practice.
"A greater effort is needed to develop and disseminate best-practice standards for the diagnosis and treatment of children, especially infants, with possible GERD. We must clarify the indications for antireflux procedures," Dr. McAteer and his associates said.
No financial conflicts of interest were reported.