Culture of Rectal Swab Specimens for Enteric Bacterial Pathogens Decreases Time to Test Result While Preserving Assay Sensitivity Compared to Bulk Fecal Specimens

Diarrheal illness is a major cause of morbidity and mortality throughout the world, yet the etiologic agent of many cases of gastrointestinal illness remains unspecified, often due to the lack of convenient, timely, and sensitive diagnostic testing. Although bulk fecal specimens remain the recommended specimen type for enteric culture, rectal swabs may be an option preferred by clinicians and patients due to the convenience and timing of collection. However, the lack of data evaluating the sensitivity of rectal swabs compared to fecal specimens for detection of enteric pathogens precludes this specimen type from being recommended by national guidelines. In this study, we retrospectively reviewed 480 paired rectal swab and fecal specimens submitted for enteric culture to the Barnes-Jewish Hospital and St. Louis Children’s Hospital microbiology laboratories in St. Louis, MO, from 2002 to 2017. We report 32% positivity of paired specimens with an overall agreement of 93% and Cohen’s of 0.84 (95% confidence interval, 0.78 to 0.89). Additionally, we evaluated the time to result from the time of patient presentation to the health care setting and demonstrate that rectal swabs have a significantly shorter time to an actionable result than bulk fecal specimens (median, 67.4 h versus 78.4 h, respectively; P0.001). These findings indicate that rectal swabs facilitate on-demand culture based testing with a sensitivity comparable to that of fecal specimens and thus should be recommended for enteric bacterial culture when bulk fecal specimens are unavailable.