Why am I not convinced? Because every time this subject comes up, the paper purporting to show that antibiotics are superior or even equal to surgical treatment is flawed. The trend continues with the current paper du jour which appears online in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons.
This study looked at the records of over 231,000 patients with uncomplicated appendicitis during the years 1997 to 2008. Only 3236 (1.5%) of those patients were treated non-operatively, and 10.3% of them had either a failure of antibiotic treatment or a recurrence of appendicitis during follow-up with 3% of those having perforations. Mortality rates were very low (appendectomy 0.1%, antibiotics 0.3%) and not significantly different, and hospital charges were similar in the groups matched with propensity scoring. Length of stay was significantly longer for those treated with antibiotics 3.2 days vs. 2.1 days, p < 0.001.
Sounds great, right?
I will not go into detail about the some of the important problems with this paper such as the fact that before the statistical manipulation with propensity scoring, the baseline characteristics of the patients in both groups were significantly different in all but one category. In table 1 of the paper, the number of patients available for follow-up was exactly the same as the number entering the study. That means that not a single patient was lost to follow-up, which is hard to believe since people occasionally move out of state. The reasons that patients did not undergo appendectomy could not be determined from the administrative database used.
Here are the key issues.
The paper was based on discharge diagnoses. Even with the use of CT scans for diagnosis, some cases of what seem to be simple appendicitis turn out to be more extensive at surgery. Had these patients been treated with antibiotics, the results would have been disastrous. And as a paper from the UK reported, administrative databases are notoriously unreliable for use in clinical studies.
The biggest problem with the paper touting antibiotics for appendicitis is that it includes patients over the course of the 11 years from 1997 to 2008. During that time and continuing to the present, the surgical technique of appendectomy has evolved.
If you look at the same database used by the authors (California Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development Patient Discharge), you will find that in 1999, appendectomies were done laparoscopically in 7574 of 36,740 cases or 21% of the time. Fast-forward to 2012, and note the converse—laparoscopic appendectomy was performed in 35,393 (79%) of 44,582 appendectomies.
Why is this important? The average length of stay for laparoscopic appendectomy for simple appendicitis is one day or fewer. This is less than half of the time stated in the comparison with antibiotic treatment.
In the January 2014 issue of the Journal of Trauma, a study reported 345 patients who had a laparoscopic appendectomy for uncomplicated appendicitis. Of those patients, 305 (88%) were discharged home from the post anesthesia care unit. The average time from admission to operation was five hours, and the average time spent in the PACU was just under 3 hours. The reasons that the 40 (12%) patients were admitted were lack of transportation in 19, pre-existing comorbidities in 15, and postoperative morbidity in 6. Only 4 of the patients who were discharged directly from the PACU required readmission. Thus, total complications (postop morbidity plus readmission) numbered 10 (2.8%).
Treating appendicitis with antibiotics also exposes patients to the risks of C. difficile colitis and other side effects of the drugs. The complications associated with laparoscopic appendectomy for simple appendicitis are few, and more importantly, the appendix is gone forever.
The authors concluded: "While the rate of treatment failure was 5.9% in non-operative patients, it was only 0.1% in operative patients. With concerns over controlling 30-day readmission and rising healthcare costs, these shortcomings may be substantial barriers to the consideration of non-operative approaches."
A randomized trial of antibiotics vs. surgery for uncomplicated appendicitis is underway in Finland. Judging from the wording of the abstract describing the trial, the authors are markedly biased toward the use of antibiotics. Despite this, let's hope it sheds some much needed light on this subject.
I don't understand why investigators, especially surgeons, continue to push antibiotics as an alternative to appendectomy. For simple appendicitis, laparoscopic surgery is quick, safe, and definitive.