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Can we afford to miss a diagnosis of acute coronary syndrome in the emergency room ?

Posted Dec 16 2009 8:52am

Modern era of cardiology aims to treat ACS  as and when it develops .That is , as soon as the vulnerable plaque ruptures or a thrombus  blocks the victim’s coronary artery.

But this can be achieved only if the patient reacts to this event.We know 20% of ACS can be totally silent. Some produce very vague symptoms especially in elderly and diabetics. ECG and enzyme changes may help us in patients who do not have clear symptoms.There are variety of markers available for STEMI & UNSTEMI.(CPK-MB, Troponin T , myoglobin etc) Now we are working at finding a marker for ischemia without necrosis. Ischemia modified albumin is one such molecule that is showing promise.

The ER department world over have vigorous screening protocols to diagnose ACS  for  the patients with chest pain. There are thousands of triaging protocol in the  emergency management of chest pain.In spite of  the highest awareness and availability of  scientific expertise , knowledge base the error rate of diagnosing  ACS  stands at an astonishing 58%.  This may seem odd , but this is what  this land mark article in NEJM tell us  (Data from Boston , Milwaukee etc).

Out of 10500 patients with suspected ACS. Only 17 % had real ACS.  55% were admitted initially as ACS  later turned out to be non cardiac .This may seem  acceptable for many  even if it is  an act of unnecessary admission and investigation. It gives us , a sense of satisfaction for not missing a diagnosis of ACS. But it has it’s own risk of complication arising out of unnecessary investigations.It is a chain reaction of  suspicion that  may end up in a coronary angiogram in many ! .It is also a well recognised fact these patients    spend  atleast an average of  2 days  to get rid of the ACS tag over their  necks .

Experience has taught us  simple presence of a human being as a patient within an  ICU ( however short the stay  may be ) can be a health hazard and risk .  This  55 % error ,  which does exactly  this to  our  patients with chest pain  who reach the ER  never bothers us  This is because  we feel credited both academically as well as financially .

In the same study 2.3 %  (About 25 patients) with true ACS  were sent home  after a missed  diagnosis . Paradoxically  this 2.3%  has worried the medical professionals too much . . . This happens  ,  even as we  do not have proper data on  how many of them had a real adverse event after a missed  ACS.

So the message here is even in best centres both missed and wrong diagnosis are  rampant. while wrong diagnosis (25 fold more here  )  is easily accepted by the medical community .We can justify  this as a screening camp for ACS  ,  akin to arresting  a group of suspected  criminals in a  preventive raid ,  later releasing for want of evidence.

In the morals of  criminal judiciary  , it is often said one can afford to  lose  a real offender from the clutches of law  , but a  innocent should  never be punished in any circumstance .

In medical parlance this  goes something like this  . . . Thousand patients shall die because of his or her illness but not even a single healthy person should die due to unnecessary treatment.

The above thoughts  were in response to  the excellent original article on missed diagnosis  of ACS from NEJM.  http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/342/16/1163?ijkey=652d8337709a8bf84c813f4c9d685863ee053162

Final message : (Sorry for the  lengthy message !)

Can we afford to miss an  ACS in emergency room ?

“Definitely not” . . .but do we succeed in that ?  The answer is same “definitely not “

When we are able to accept with pride every time  we make  a  wrong diagnosis of  ACS  in perfectly normal people , It may to provocative to say  we can  also  afford  to do  the same  when we occasionally   miss a  diagnosis of ACS  as well .  Law of statistics dictates for every correct diagnosis made there is many fold number of wrong or missed diagnosis takes place. May be , reducing that is the only aim of medicine.

We need to realise  with even with a 55% of false positive initial  diagnosis  2%  real ACS  escape net !The only  fool proof method  for  not missing  ,  even a single case of ACS   is to label every patient with chest pain as ACS .

In this vexing  issue , we should realise  , in field of  medical decision  making ,  errors  due to acts of commission  ( Making an  inappropriate drug/procedure /surgery  is easily accepted by medical professionals as well as   the court of law !) . But acts of omission ,   like missing a diagnosis or failure to prescribe  a  drug or perform a procedure  is rarely accepted   and  is  considered   a great negligence and  bring intense guilty feeling among the physicians .

This  perception is definitely  not warranted in this  greatest profession  of glorious uncertainties ! Both acts of commission and omission  cause significant damage to  patients . In this modern era  ,  we have clear  statistics  that   reveal ,  acts of commission  leads far ahead over it’ s counterpart in injuring our people .

Hippocrates got it right over 2000 years  ago .  First let us do no harm  . . .

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