Cellulitis Care Costly From Misdiagnosis, Needless Hospitalizations

Ted Bosworth

March 29, 2022

The cost of care for the more than 14 million cases of cellulitis that occur each year in the United States is in the billions of dollars, but there are multiple opportunities, many involving dermatologists, to dramatically reduce these costs, according to an outline of strategies presented at the American Academy of Dermatology 2022 annual meeting in Boston, Massachusetts.

"Cellulitis is misdiagnosed about one third of the time, and that cost is very high," reported Jennifer L. Adams, MD, assistant professor of dermatology, University of Nebraska, Omaha. She sees opportunities for dermatological consults to help weed through the many cellulitis mimickers, such as venous insufficiency or psoriasiform drug reactions, to prevent unnecessary admissions and ineffective therapy.

"There is a huge need for diagnostic accuracy as a means to deliver more cost-effective care,"  Adams said.

Solving misdiagnosis is only part of the story. Costs of care are also ramped up by unnecessary hospitalizations. According to Adams, published criteria to triage emergency room patients with cellulitis to outpatient care are not always followed. In one review, 14% of admitted patients had met the criteria for outpatient treatment.

Cellulitis is a common skin infection that causes redness, swelling, and pain in the infected area, most often on the legs and feet.

Unnecessary hospitalizations for misdiagnosed cellulitis, which is associated with an average 4-day hospital stay, "range from $200 million to $500 million in avoidable direct healthcare costs," Adams said.

Even for justifiable hospitalizations, there are still opportunities for cost savings. In one study, blood cultures were ordered in 73% of patients even though only 2% produced a finding relevant to care. According to Adams, most cellulitis cases are caused by the "usual suspects" — group A beta-hemolytic streptococcus, Streptococcus pneumoniae, and Staphylococcus aureus. The exceptions stand out by clinical criteria, such as known neutropenia, history of an animal bite, signs of Systemic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (SIRS), or a purulent appearance.

"Blood cultures are not cost-effective in uncomplicated cellulitis," Adams said. She said there are numerous published algorithms to guide clinicians on decision-making in the management of soft tissue infections, including cellulitis, including a much-cited algorithm first published more than 15 years ago and updated in 2014.

Similarly, labs and imaging are commonly ordered with no strong likelihood that they will change management, she said. These types of decisions are also covered in published algorithms.

Strategies to prevent rehospitalization are another area where there is a large opportunity to reduce healthcare resources consumed by cellulitis. The rehospitalization rate at 30 days is approximately 10%, but many patients have recurrent episodes over years, according to Adams. The risk factors and the preventative measures have been well described.

"Scrupulous clinical care can reduce recurrence, and it is cost-effective," said Adams, referring to control of edema, control of underlying conditions associated with increased risk, such as diabetes, and managing dry skin and erosions with topical agents or even moisturizers. Compression socks are a simple but effective tool, she added.

For patients with repeat episodes of cellulitis over years, Adams referred to a double-blind trial that associated a twice-daily dose of 250 mg penicillin with a 45% reduction in the risk of cellulitis recurrence over 1 year. At approximately $10 a month for this treatment, she said it is very cost-effective, although she acknowledged that recurrence rates of cellulitis climb back up when the penicillin is stopped.

"I think of this as a bridge while you work on addressing the venous insufficiency or other risk factors for cellulitis," Adams said.

For reducing the costs of cellulitis, there is evidence that dermatologists can play a role. Adams cited a study that evaluated the impact of a dermatologist consultation for suspected cellulitis in the emergency room or within 24 hours of admission. Of 34 patients already prescribed antibiotics for presumed cellulitis, discontinuation was recommended in 82%. Of 39 admissions, pseudocellulitis was identified in 51%.

Extrapolating these data to national rates of cellulitis, there was an estimated savings of up to $200 million annually without any apparent increased risk of adverse outcomes, according to Adams.

When contacted about his experience, the senior investigator of that study, Arash Mostaghimi, MD, director of the Inpatient Dermatology Consult Service, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, largely agreed with the premise of Adam's analysis. In particular, he said, avoiding misdiagnosis of cellulitis offers a major opportunity to lower costs while possibly improving care.

True of national practice and at the local level, "misdiagnosis of noninfectious inflammatory reactions such as cellulitis has substantial cost impacts," Mostaghimi said in an interview. Based on evidence, the savings are derived directly from "unnecessary antibiotic exposure as well as inappropriate hospitalization."

Following publication of his study, he became involved in addressing this issue at his institution.

"At Brigham and Women's, we collaborated with colleagues in infectious disease and in the emergency department to create cellulitis protocols that identify patients at risk for misdiagnosis and facilitate early dermatology consultation for diagnostic confirmation," he said.

Although there are algorithms to achieve this goal, he indicated that the expertise of dermatologists can quickly and efficiently differentiate inflammatory skin reactions and expedite appropriate care.

Adams and Mostaghimi have reported no relevant financial relationships.

American Academy of Dermatology 2022. Presented March 27, 2022.

Ted Bosworth is a medical reporter who writes about clinical advances for a professional audience. He is based in New York City.

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