Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-768dbb666b-9hf5z Total loading time: 0.621 Render date: 2023-02-05T14:29:58.037Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": false } hasContentIssue true

Diagnosis of urinary tract infections: need for a reflective rather than reflexive approach

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 April 2019

Mohamad G. Fakih*
Care Excellence, Ascension Healthcare, St Louis, Missouri Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan
Sonali D. Advani
Section of Infectious Diseases, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut
Valerie M. Vaughn
Department of Internal Medicine, University of Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor, Michigan Center for Clinical Management Research, VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Author for correspondence: Mohamad G. Fakih, Email:
Rights & Permissions[Opens in a new window]


Letter to the Editor
© 2019 by The Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America. All rights reserved 

To the Editor—We read with great interest the study by Munigala et alReference Munigala, Rojek and Wood1 on the impact of changing urine testing orderables on the number and positivity of urine cultures. With the increased attention to catheter-associated urinary tract infection (CAUTI), the vast majority of hospitals in the United States have steered their attention to “stewardship of culturing” to reduce the detection of asymptomatic catheter-associated bacteriuria. In this retrospective study, the authors evaluate changing urine culture reflex testing in order sets and engaging clinicians regarding the change. Prior to the intervention, a urinalysis would be reflexed to culture if it included any protein, blood, nitrite, or leukocyte-esterase positive results. With the intervention, the urinalysis reflexed to culture only if it was positive for either nitrite or leukocyte esterase. A 45% reduction in urine cultures performed was observed after implementation, although catheter-associated bacteriuria and CAUTI rates did not significantly change.

The main intervention was to exclude urinalysis parameters of proteinuria or blood, both elements not typically associated with bacteriuria, from reflexing to cultures. This raises the issue that there is no national standard for “reflex urine culture” criteria in hospitalized patients.Reference Sullivan, Morgan and Leekha2 A previous study that incorporated reflex urine cultures relied on arbitrary triggers (white cells >10 per high-power field) of the urinalysis to reflex to culture, leading to a reduction in catheter-associated bacteriuria but not antibiotic use.Reference Sarg, Waldrop and Beier3 Other successful efforts to reduce culturing and CAUTI have focused on engaging clinicians with protocols on how to address fever without requiring strict implementation of urinalysis reflex to cultures.Reference Mullin, Kovacs and Fatica4 Whether any of the interventions have improved the diagnosis of urinary tract infection (UTI) remains unknown.

Notably, the reduction in urine cultures from Munigala’s study were disproportionately related to catheterized patients compared to clean-catch samples (76% vs 38% decrease). This finding indicates a potential clinician bias toward ordering fewer cultures in catheterized patients during the intervention phase in a population that is more likely to develop bacteriuria and pyuria because of instrumentation and, thus, more likely to have abnormal urinalyses.

Bacteriuria was common, with >25% of urine cultures being positive, identified as either >100,000 colony-forming units per milliliter (CFU/mL) for clean-catch collection or >10,000 CFU/mL for catheterized patients. The extent of bacteriuria likely would have been even higher if cultures with lower colony counts were included. The number of positive cultures per 1,000 patient days decreased by more than one-third, but it is not clear whether the improvements were related to a general reduction in urine culturing compared to better identification of symptomatic patients. Although a negative urinalysis may have a high negative predictive value for bacteriuria and infection, an “abnormal” result does not indicate infection.Reference Humphries and Dien Bard5 An assessment of the pretest probability (ie, symptoms and signs) is key to better identify urinary tract infection. Reflex urine cultures used in isolation enhance the identification of bacteriuria (both symptomatic and asymptomatic) but not necessarily the diagnosis of UTIs. Although its use has been well validated in outpatient setting, it may not be an optimal strategy for the inpatient or catheterized populations.

Before we declare whether reflex urine cultures “save the day,” we need to address the importance of reviewing signs and symptoms suggestive of a UTI prior to urine testing. UTI is suspected based on focal signs and symptoms attributed to the urinary tract, or systemic findings in patients at risk with no other apparent source of infection. Asymptomatic bacteriuria is common, especially in the elderly and in catheterized patients.Reference Nicolle, Bradley, Colgan, Rice, Schaeffer and Hooton6 Hence, we endorse a stepwise approach, as recommended by Morgan et al,Reference Morgan, Malani and Diekema7 targeting ordering, collection, processing, and reporting of urine cultures (Fig. 1). In the ordering (preanalytic) stage, testing should be restricted to patients with symptoms referable to the urinary tract (with some exclusions as per guidelines) and inappropriate practices, such as indiscriminate ‘pan-culturing,’ should be discouraged.Reference Fakih and Khatib8Reference Vaughn and Chopra10 In patients with nonspecific symptoms like delirium or fever, it is important to first rule out an alternate cause of a patient’s symptoms before considering urine cultures. The collection (preanalytic) stage focuses on urine collection techniques to reduce contamination. The processing (analytic) stage relies on optimizing reflex testing by only targeting this test to patients with UTI symptoms and by identifying optimal parameters for reflexing. The reporting (postanalytic) stage includes framing diagnostic results to help providers accurately interpret and respond to results.

Fig. 1. Stages of diagnostic stewardship interventions with urine cultures.

As providers, we should be cognizant that the value of both urinalysis and urine culture depends on the clinical condition of the patient. For those who order, collect, and interpret urinalyses, this means moving away from a reflexive approach to testing and treatment, toward a reflective one. Although the “knee jerk” response to evaluating a patient with a fever or altered mental status may be obtaining a urinalysis, there are myriad other causes of these symptoms in hospitalized patients which are potentially missed by focusing on the urine. Similarly, reflexive treatment of “positive” urine cultures based on “positive” urinalyses leads to overtreatment, especially in groups with high pretest probability for bacteriuria. And as long as we are asking providers to be more reflective than reflexive—perhaps it is time to do the same of urinalyses, too.

Author ORCIDs

Mohamad G Fakih, 0000-0002-2258-8015; Sonali D Advani, 0000-0001-5162-6482



Financial support

No financial support was provided relevant to this article.

Conflicts of interest

All authors report no conflicts of interest relevant to this article.


Munigala, S, Rojek, R, Wood, H, et al. Effect of changing urine testing orderables and clinician order sets on inpatient urine culture testing: analysis from a large academic medical center. Infect Control Hosp Epidemiol 2019;40:281286.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Sullivan, KV, Morgan, DJ, Leekha, S. Use of diagnostic stewardship practices to improve urine culturing among SHEA research network hospitals. Infect Control Hosp Epidemiol 2019;40:228231.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Sarg, M, Waldrop, GE, Beier, MA, et al. Impact of changes in urine culture ordering practice on antimicrobial utilization in intensive care units at an academic medical center. Infect Control Hospital Epidemiol 2016;37:448454.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Mullin, KM, Kovacs, CS, Fatica, C, et al. A multifaceted approach to reduction of catheter-associated urinary tract infections in the intensive care unit with an emphasis on “stewardship of culturing.” Infect Control Hosp Epidemiol 2017;38:186188.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Humphries, RM, Dien Bard, J. Point-counterpoint: reflex cultures reduce laboratory workload and improve antimicrobial stewardship in patients suspected of having urinary tract infections. J Clin Microbiol 2016;54:254258.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Nicolle, LE, Bradley, S, Colgan, R, Rice, JC, Schaeffer, A, Hooton, TM. Infectious Diseases Society of America guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of asymptomatic bacteriuria in adults. Clin Infect Dis 2005;40:643654.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Morgan, DJ, Malani, P, Diekema, DJ. Diagnostic stewardship-leveraging the laboratory to improve antimicrobial use. JAMA 2017;318:607608.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Fakih, MG, Khatib, R. Improving the culture of culturing: critical asset to antimicrobial stewardship. Infect Control Hosp Epidemiol 2017;38:377379.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Hooton, TM, Bradley, SF, Cardenas, DD, et al. Diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of catheter-associated urinary tract infection in adults: 2009 International clinical practice guidelines from the infectious diseases society of America. Clin Infect Dis 2010;50:625663.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Vaughn, VM, Chopra, V. Revisiting the panculture. BMJ Qual Saf 2017;26:236239.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Figure 0

Fig. 1. Stages of diagnostic stewardship interventions with urine cultures.

You have Access
Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Diagnosis of urinary tract infections: need for a reflective rather than reflexive approach
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Diagnosis of urinary tract infections: need for a reflective rather than reflexive approach
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Diagnosis of urinary tract infections: need for a reflective rather than reflexive approach
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *