Objective: To develop a generally applicable set of coded chief complaints for the computerized patient records of emergency departments (EDs).
Methods: At an urban teaching ED the chief complaints of more than 50,000 patients were analyzed retrospectively during a 29-month period (June 1995-October 1997). Applying continuous quality improvement methods, a multidisciplinary team examined the current process documenting the patient's chief complaint. During two prospective periods (November 1997-December 1998; January 1999-June 1999), more than 34,000 chief complaints were analyzed. To reduce free-text charting practices, a variety of interventions on individual and team level were applied. Quantitative analysis was performed with statistical process control charts, and a qualitative evaluation was performed with a questionnaire.
Results: The charting of chief complaint in free-text format decreased from 23% to 1%. The range among individual ED staff members narrowed from 45% to 9%. During the refinement of the set of coded chief complaints, six infrequently charted items were removed. Five new chief complaints identified by analysis of free-text entries during the second study period were added. The current set of chief complaints consists of 54 codable and the three original free-text items. The ED staff members perceived all the interventions beneficial. A poster displaying all available terms as a visual aid, however, had the largest impact on charting the patient's chief complaint in coded format.
Conclusions: Applying continuous quality improvement methods, the authors created a clinically developed and applicable set of codable chief complaints that can be easily integrated into a computerized patient record of an ED.