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The Sensitivity of Computed Tomography (CT) Scans in Detecting Trauma: Are CT Scans Reliable Enough for Courtroom Testimony?

Molina, D Kimberley MD; Nichols, Joanna J. BA; DiMaio, Vincent J. M. MD

Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery: September 2007 - Volume 63 - Issue 3 - p 625-629
doi: 10.1097/01.ta.0000236055.33085.77
Original Articles

Background: Rapid and accurate recognition of traumatic injuries is extremely important in emergency room and surgical settings. Emergency departments depend on computed tomography (CT) scans to provide rapid, accurate injury assessment. We conducted an analysis of all traumatic deaths autopsied at the Bexar County Medical Examiner's Office in which perimortem medical imaging (CT scan) was performed to assess the reliability of the CT scan in detecting trauma with sufficient accuracy for courtroom testimony.

Methods: Cases were included in the study if an autopsy was conducted, a CT scan was performed within 24 hours before death, and there was no surgical intervention. Analysis was performed to assess the correlation between the autopsy and CT scan results. Sensitivity, specificity, positive predictive value, and negative predictive value were defined for the CT scan based on the autopsy results.

Results: The sensitivity of the CT scan ranged from 0% for cerebral lacerations, cervical vertebral body fractures, cardiac injury, and hollow viscus injury to 75% for liver injury.

Conclusions: This study reveals that CT scans are an inadequate detection tool for forensic pathologists, where a definitive diagnosis is required, because they have a low level of accuracy in detecting traumatic injuries. CT scans may be adequate for clinicians in the emergency room setting, but are inadequate for courtroom testimony. If the evidence of trauma is based solely on CT scan reports, there is a high possibility of erroneous accusations, indictments, and convictions.

From the Bexar County Medical Examiner's Office, San Antonio, Texas.

Submitted for publication January 12, 2006.

Accepted for publication June 26, 2006.

Address for reprints: D. Kimberley Molina, MD, Bexar County Medical Examiner's Office, 7337 Louis Pasteur Drive, San Antonio, TX 78229; email:

© 2007 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.