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Although rapid viral tests are commonly used in children with lower respiratory tract infection, their effect on patient management has not been studied.To examine how physicians utilize an enzyme immunoassay for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV EIA) and a centrifugation-enhanced cellular immunofluorescence assay for multiple viral pathogens [viral respiratory panel (VRP)] in children hospitalized with respiratory illness; to determine the effect of testing on length of stay, antibiotic use and costs; and to determine physician attitudes toward RSV testing.Prospective study and survey at a large children's hospital.Previously healthy children <24 months of age consecutively admitted between January 1 and February 11, 1995, with symptoms of lower respiratory tract infection.Of 200 patients 160 were tested by RSV EIA; 92 were positive and 68 were negative. Tested children were younger, more tachypneic and more likely to require oxygen than those not tested. Overall the length of stay was similar in RSV-positive and -negative patients. Although equal proportions of each group were given antibiotic therapy, RSV-positive children received antibiotic therapy for fewer days than RSV-negative children (median 2 vs. 3 days; P = 0.0387). However, a crude cost analysis did not support a strategy of testing all bronchiolitis patients for RSV. Sixty-five of the 68 RSV-negative children were tested for RSV and other pathogens by VRP. In 55 cases the results were not available until after patient discharge and could not have influenced their management. One hundred three physicians caring for children in the study were surveyed. Of 75 respondents almost all thought that RSV EIA results influenced their management of patients and were important to parents.Most children hospitalized with symptoms of lower respiratory tract infection were tested for viral pathogens. The VRP provided little clinically useful information. In contrast RSV EIA results may have been used by clinicians to make antibiotic decisions. Physicians felt that rapid testing for RSV was important.