Purpose: To determine whether a helical computed tomographic (CT) scan that is negative for pulmonary embolism (PE) is a sufficiently reliable criterion to safely withhold anticoagulation therapy.
Materials and methods: Patients with negative helical CT scans were prospectively compared with patients with negative or low-probability scintigrams. In a 460-bed university hospital and clinic, 1,015 adult patients underwent either scintigraphy or helical CT for possible PE for 25 months. Five hundred forty-eight patients who had negative images and were not receiving anticoagulation therapy were prospectively followed up for 3 months for clinical, new imaging, death certificate, or autopsy evidence of subsequent PE. Ninety-seven patients were lost to follow-up.
Results: Subsequent PE was found in two (1.0%) of 198 patients with negative CT scans, none of 188 patients with negative ventilation-perfusion (V-P) scans, and five (3.1%) of 162 patients with low-probability V-P scans (not statistically significant). Patients in the helical CT group were hospitalized more often, had more severe disease, had more substantial PE risk factors, and had a higher death rate. No deaths were attributed to PE in either group.
Conclusion: The frequency of clinical diagnoses of PE after a negative CT scan was low and similar to that after a negative or low-probability V-P scan. Helical CT is a reliable imaging tool for excluding clinically important PE.