The emergency department versus the computer: which is the better electrocardiographer?

Pediatr Cardiol. Jul-Aug 2003;24(4):364-8. doi: 10.1007/s00246-002-0332-z. Epub 2002 Dec 4.


Electrocardiograms (ECGs) are frequently ordered in the pediatric emergency department (ED). Pediatric cardiologists are generally not asked to interpret every ECG; thus, ED patient management is often guided by the ED physicians' ECG interpretation. The objective of this study was to analyze the accuracy of ECG interpretation by ED physicians and a computer-generated interpretation and compare the two. A 12-month prospective study was performed in a pediatric ED. All patients (<22 years) who had an ECG in the ED were included. The ED physicians and the computer interpretation were compared to a reference standard. Each electrocardiographic diagnosis, as well as the ECG as a whole, was assigned to one of the following predetermined classes: I, normal sinus rhythm; II, minimal clinical significance; III, indeterminate clinical significance; IV, those of definite clinical significance. Both groups correctly interpreted all normal (class I) ECGs. The computer correctly interpreted approximately 75% of the class II and class III ECGs, whereas the ED physicians correctly interpreted 36% of both groups. For the class IV ECGs, both the computer and the ED physicians performed poorly, correctly interpreting just 14% and 28%, respectively. The computer proved to be more accurate than the ED physicians in interpreting ECGs of less than critical significance (classes II and III), but neither group was able to correctly interpret even a simple majority of the most significant abnormalities (class IV). We speculate that distributing the computer-generated interpretation to the ED physicians and formal review of all ED ECGs by a skilled interpreter may decrease the number of missed diagnoses.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Cardiology / standards
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / diagnosis*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Clinical Competence*
  • Cohort Studies
  • Diagnosis, Computer-Assisted / methods*
  • Diagnostic Errors / statistics & numerical data
  • Electrocardiography / methods*
  • Emergency Medicine / standards
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / standards*
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / trends
  • Female
  • Health Care Surveys
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Pediatrics / standards
  • Probability
  • Reference Standards
  • Risk Assessment
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Texas