The provision of diagnosis at emergency department discharge: a pilot study

Emerg Med J. 2013 Oct;30(10):801-3. doi: 10.1136/emermed-2012-201749. Epub 2012 Oct 25.


Objectives: Understanding the cause of patients' symptoms usually involves identification of a pathological diagnosis. Anecdotal reports suggest that emergency department (ED) providers do not prioritise giving pathological diagnoses, and often reiterate the patient's symptom as the discharge 'diagnosis'. Our pilot study sought to identify the proportion of patients at a large teaching hospital who receive a symptomatic versus pathological diagnosis at ED discharge.

Methods: We performed a chart review of all adult patients who were discharged from an urban ED in the USA, with an 88,000 annual visit volume. All charts of patients presenting with the three most common ED chief complaints (chest pain, abdominal pain and headache) were reviewed by two reviewers. Charts were coded as either symptomatic or pathological diagnosis based on the discharge diagnosis provided by the attending physician. Those with discrepant coding by the two reviewers were subject to review by a third adjudicator.

Results: 797 charts met the inclusion criteria. Five charts (0.6%) were coded differently by the two reviewers; a discussion with the third reviewer resulted in consensus in all cases. For patients presenting with chest pain, abdominal pain and headache, the proportion that received a pathological ED discharge diagnosis were 17%, 43% and 41%, respectively.

Conclusions: According to our pilot study, most patients are discharged from the ED without a pathological diagnosis that explains the likely cause of their symptoms. Future studies will investigate whether this finding is consistent across institutions, and whether provision of a pathological diagnosis affects clinical outcomes and patient satisfaction.

Keywords: clinical care; communications; diagnosis; emergency care systems, emergency departments; emergency departments.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Abdominal Pain / etiology*
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Chest Pain / etiology*
  • Emergency Service, Hospital*
  • Female
  • Headache / etiology*
  • Hospitals, Urban
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Patient Discharge / statistics & numerical data*
  • Pilot Projects
  • Retrospective Studies
  • United States
  • Young Adult