Thrombosis in the emergency department: use of a clinical diagnosis model to safely avoid the need for urgent radiological investigation

Arch Intern Med. 1999 Mar 8;159(5):477-82. doi: 10.1001/archinte.159.5.477.


Context: The management of patients presenting to hospital emergency departments with suspected deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is problematic because urgent diagnostic imaging capability is sometimes unavailable. Experienced physicians using clinical skills alone can classify patients with suspected DVT into low-, moderate-, and high-probability categories.

Objectives: To determine the accuracy of an explicit clinical model for the diagnosis of DVT when applied by emergency department physicians and to assess the safety and feasibility of a management strategy based on the clinical pretest probability for patients presenting to the emergency department with suspected DVT outside of regular hospital staff work hours.

Methods: A prospective cohort study was performed in the emergency departments of 2 tertiary care institutions involving 344 patients with suspected DVT. Patient conditions were evaluated by an emergency department physician who determined the pretest probability for DVT to be low, moderate, or high using an explicit clinical model. Patients for whom DVT was considered a low pretest probability were discharged from the emergency department and returned the following day for venous compression ultrasound imaging of the affected leg. Patients for whom DVT was considered a moderate pre-test probability received a single, weight-adjusted dose of subcutaneous unfractionated heparin sodium (between 12 500 and 20 000 U), were discharged from the emergency department, and returned the next morning to undergo ultrasonography. Patients for whom DVT was considered a high pretest probability were admitted to the hospital, administered intravenous unfractionated heparin, and ultrasonography was arranged within 24 hours. Patients with positive ultrasonographic findings were diagnosed with DVT, except for those with low pretest probability for whom confirmatory venography was performed. Patients with DVT excluded in the initial evaluation period did not receive anticoagulant therapy. All patients were followed up for 90 days to monitor development of thromboembolic or bleeding complications.

Results: Twenty-four (49.0% [95% confidence interval (CI), 34.5%-63.6%]) of 49 patients in the high-probability category, 15 (14.3% [95% CI, 8.3%-22.4%]) of 105 in the moderate-, and 6 (3.2% [95% CI, 1.2%-6.7%]) of 190 in the low-probability category were confirmed to have DVT. Overall, 45 (13.1%) of 344 patients were confirmed to have DVT. No patient developed pulmonary embolism or major bleeding complications within 48 hours of initial evaluation in the emergency department. Of the 301 patients who had DVT excluded during the initial evaluation period, only 2 (0.7% [95% CI, 0.1%-2.3%]) developed venous thromboembolic complications (calf vein thromboses in both) in the 3-month follow-up period.

Conclusions: Using an explicit clinical model, emergency department physicians can accurately classify patients with suspected DVT into high-, moderate-, and low-probability groups. A management plan based on probability for DVT that avoids the need for urgent diagnostic imaging is safe and feasible in the emergency department setting.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Decision Trees
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Emergency Service, Hospital
  • Feasibility Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Patient Admission
  • Phlebography
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Prospective Studies
  • Thrombosis / diagnosis*
  • Thrombosis / diagnostic imaging
  • Thrombosis / drug therapy
  • Ultrasonography