Flowchart for Implementing Advanced Imaging and Electrophysiology in Patients With Disorders of Consciousness: To fMRI or Not to fMRI?

The American Academy of Neurology and the European Academy of Neurology have recognized, for the first time, the value of advanced neuroimaging and electrophysiology techniques (AIEs) in the context of diagnosing patients with a disorder of consciousness (DOC). This recognition is part of an important agenda of promoting evidence-based competency in the management of patients with DOC. Nonetheless, considering that these techniques (and the required knowledge) are seldom available outside of advanced medical centers, it is important to provide physicians with a framework for balancing risks and benefits and deciding, on a single patient basis, whether AIEs are suitable. This issue is all the more urgent considering that family members are increasingly aware of the use of AIEs in patients with DOC, pressure for these assessments is likely to increase in the context of ethical and clinical imperatives to meet standards of care, and pathways for reimbursement for such assessments in DOC are yet to be established. The new guidelines, however, provide no guiding principle for physicians to decide when such assessments are appropriate, a limitation that impedes their wide adoption. We address this important gap by proposing an easy to use algorithmic flowchart that is based on the new guidelines and can be used to determine the appropriateness of AIEs for any given patient with DOC and ensure that evidence-based best practices are being followed. We also provide a brief context for understanding the main categories of AIEs available to clinicians, their advantages, and their limitations.

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