Urinary tract infections in children: Building a causal model-based decision support tool for diagnosis with domain knowledge and prospective data

Jessica A. Ramsay, Steven Mascaro, Anita J. Campbell, David A. Foley, Ariel O. Mace, Paul Ingram, Meredith L. Borland, Christopher C. Blyth, Nicholas G. Larkins, Tim Robertson, Phoebe C.M. Williams, Thomas L. Snelling, Yue Wu

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Background: Diagnosing urinary tract infections (UTIs) in children in the emergency department (ED) is challenging due to the variable clinical presentations and difficulties in obtaining a urine sample free from contamination. Clinicians need to weigh a range of observations to make timely diagnostic and management decisions, a difficult task to achieve without support due to the complex interactions among relevant factors. Directed acyclic graphs (DAG) and causal Bayesian networks (BN) offer a way to explicitly outline the underlying disease, contamination and diagnostic processes, and to further make quantitative inference on the event of interest thus serving as a tool for decision support. Methods: We prospectively collected data on children present to ED with suspected UTIs. Through knowledge elicitation workshops and one-on-one meetings, a DAG was co-developed with clinical domain experts (the Expert DAG) to describe the causal relationships among variables relevant to paediatric UTIs. The Expert DAG was combined with prospective data and further domain knowledge to inform the development of an application-oriented BN (the Applied BN), designed to support the diagnosis of UTI. We assessed the performance of the Applied BN using quantitative and qualitative methods. Results: We summarised patient background, clinical and laboratory characteristics of 431 episodes of suspected UTIs enrolled from May 2019 to November 2020. The Expert DAG was presented with a narrative description, elucidating how infection, specimen contamination and management pathways causally interact to form the complex picture of paediatric UTIs. Parameterised using prospective data and expert-elicited parameters, the Applied BN achieved an excellent and stable performance in predicting Escherichia coli culture results, with a mean area under the receiver operating characteristic curve of 0.86 and a mean log loss of 0.48 based on 10-fold cross-validation. The BN predictions were reviewed via a validation workshop, and we illustrate how they can be presented for decision support using three hypothetical clinical scenarios. Conclusion: Causal BNs created from both expert knowledge and data can integrate case-specific information to provide individual decision support during the diagnosis of paediatric UTIs in ED. The model aids the interpretation of culture results and the diagnosis of UTIs, promising the prospect of improved patient care and judicious use of antibiotics.

Original languageEnglish
Article number218
Pages (from-to)1-17
Number of pages17
JournalBMC Medical Research Methodology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2022


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