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Open Forum Infect Dis


Background: Difficulty discriminating bacterial from viral infections drives antibacterial misuse. Host gene expression tests discriminate bacterial and viral etiologies, but their clinical utility has not been evaluated.

Methods: Host gene expression and procalcitonin levels were measured in 582 emergency department participants with suspected infection. We also recorded clinician diagnosis and clinician-recommended treatment. These 4 diagnostic strategies were compared with clinical adjudication as the reference. To estimate the clinical impact of host gene expression, we calculated the change in overall Net Benefit (∆NB; the difference in Net Benefit comparing 1 diagnostic strategy with a reference) across a range of prevalence estimates while factoring in the clinical significance of false-positive and -negative errors.

Results: Gene expression correctly classified bacterial, viral, or noninfectious illness in 74.1% of subjects, similar to the other strategies. Clinical diagnosis and clinician-recommended treatment revealed a bias toward overdiagnosis of bacterial infection resulting in high sensitivity (92.6% and 94.5%, respectively) but poor specificity (67.2% and 58.8%, respectively), resulting in a 33.3% rate of inappropriate antibacterial use. Gene expression offered a more balanced sensitivity (79.0%) and specificity (80.7%), which corresponded to a statistically significant improvement in average weighted accuracy (79.9% vs 71.5% for procalcitonin and 76.3% for clinician-recommended treatment; P<.0001 for both). Consequently, host gene expression had greater Net Benefit in diagnosing bacterial infection than clinician-recommended treatment (∆NB=6.4%) and procalcitonin (∆NB=17.4%).

Conclusions: Host gene expression-based tests to distinguish bacterial and viral infection can facilitate appropriate treatment, improving patient outcomes and mitigating the antibacterial resistance crisis.

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