A Bayesian Network Analysis of the Diagnostic Process and its Accuracy to Determine How Clinicians Estimate Cardiac Function in Critically Ill Patients: Prospective Observational Cohort Study

Thomas Kaufmann*, Jose Castela Forte, Bart Hiemstra, Marco A. Wiering, Marco Grzegorczyk, Anne H. Epema, Iwan C. C. van der Horst, SICS Study Group

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Background: Hemodynamic assessment of critically ill patients is a challenging endeavor, and advanced monitoring techniques are often required to guide treatment choices. Given the technical complexity and occasional unavailability of these techniques, estimation of cardiac function based on clinical examination is valuable for critical care physicians to diagnose circulatory shock. Yet, the lack of knowledge on how to best conduct and teach the clinical examination to estimate cardiac function has reduced its accuracy to almost that of "flipping a coin."

Objective: The aim of this study was to investigate the decision-making process underlying estimates of cardiac function of patients acutely admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) based on current standardized clinical examination using Bayesian methods.

Methods: Patient data were collected as part of the Simple Intensive Care Studies-I (SICS-I) prospective cohort study. All adult patients consecutively admitted to the ICU with an expected stay longer than 24 hours were included, for whom clinical examination was conducted and cardiac function was estimated. Using these data, first, the probabilistic dependencies between the examiners' estimates and the set of clinically measured variables upon which these rely were analyzed using a Bayesian network. Second, the accuracy of cardiac function estimates was assessed by comparison to the cardiac index values measured by critical care ultrasonography.

Results: A total of 1075 patients were included, of which 783 patients had validated cardiac index measurements. A Bayesian network analysis identified two clinical variables upon which cardiac function estimate is conditionally dependent, namely, noradrenaline administration and presence of delayed capillary refill time or mottling. When the patient received noradrenaline, the probability of cardiac function being estimated as reasonable or good P(E-R,E-G) was lower, irrespective of whether the patient was mechanically ventilated (P[E-RG vertical bar ventilation, noradrenaline]=0.63, P[E-R,E-G vertical bar ventilation, no noradrenaline]=0.91, P [E-RG vertical bar no ventilation, noradrenaline]=0.67, P [E-RG vertical bar no ventilation, no noradrenaline]=0.93). The same trend was found for capillary refill time or mottling. Sensitivity of estimating a low cardiac index was 26% and 39% and specificity was 83% and 74% for students and physicians, respectively. Positive and negative likelihood ratios were 1.53 (95% CI 1.19-1.97) and 0.87 (95% CI 0.80-0.95), respectively, overall.

Conclusions: The conditional dependencies between clinical variables and the cardiac function estimates resulted in a network consistent with known physiological relations. Conditional probability queries allow for multiple clinical scenarios to be recreated, which provide insight into the possible thought process underlying the examiners' cardiac function estimates. This information can help develop interactive digital training tools for students and physicians and contribute toward the goal of further improving the diagnostic accuracy of clinical examination in ICU patients.

Original languageEnglish
Article number15358
Pages (from-to)214-224
Number of pages11
JournalJMIR Medical Informatics
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • cardiac function
  • physical examination
  • Bayesian network
  • critical care
  • ICU
  • medical education
  • educated guess
  • cognition
  • clinical decision-support
  • cardiology

Cite this