Variation in diagnostic testing for older patients with syncope in the emergency department

Am J Emerg Med. 2019 May;37(5):810-816. doi: 10.1016/j.ajem.2018.07.043. Epub 2018 Jul 23.


Background: Older adults presenting with syncope often undergo intensive diagnostic testing with unclear benefit. We determined the variation, frequency, yield, and costs of tests obtained to evaluate older persons with syncope.

Methods: We conducted a prospective, multicenter observational cohort study in 11 academic emergency departments in the United States of 3686 patients aged ≥60 years presenting with syncope or presyncope. We measured the frequency, variation, yield, and costs (based on Medicare payment tables) of diagnostic tests performed at the index visit.

Results: While most study rates were similar across sites, some were notably discordant (e.g., carotid ultrasound: mean 9.5%, range 1.1% to 49.3%). The most frequently-obtained diagnostic tests were initial troponin (88.6%), chest x-ray (75.1%), head CT (42.5%) and echocardiogram (35.5%). The yield or proportion of abnormal findings by diagnostic test ranged from 1.9% (electrocardiogram) to 42.0% (coronary angiography). Among the most common tests, echocardiogram had the highest proportion of abnormal results at 22.1%. Echocardiogram was an outlier in total cost at $672,648, and had a cost per abnormal test of $3129.

Conclusion: Variation in diagnostic testing in older patients presenting with syncope exists. The yield and cost per abnormal result for common tests obtained to evaluate syncope are also highly variable. Selecting tests based on history and examination while also prioritizing less resource intensive and higher yield tests may ensure a more informed and cost-effective approach to evaluating older patients with syncope.

Keywords: Cost; Diagnostic testing; Emergency department; Near syncope; Syncope; Variation; Yield.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Observational Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Cost-Benefit Analysis
  • Diagnostic Imaging / economics*
  • Diagnostic Imaging / statistics & numerical data
  • Diagnostic Tests, Routine / economics*
  • Diagnostic Tests, Routine / statistics & numerical data
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / economics
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Prospective Studies
  • Syncope / diagnosis*
  • United States
  • Unnecessary Procedures / economics