The accuracy of initial diagnoses in coma: an observational study in 835 patients with non-traumatic disorder of consciousness

Scand J Trauma Resusc Emerg Med. 2021 Jan 12;29(1):15. doi: 10.1186/s13049-020-00822-w.


Background: Management of patients with coma of unknown etiology (CUE) is a major challenge in most emergency departments (EDs). CUE is associated with a high mortality and a wide variety of pathologies that require differential therapies. A suspected diagnosis issued by pre-hospital emergency care providers often drives the first approach to these patients. We aim to determine the accuracy and value of the initial diagnostic hypothesis in patients with CUE.

Methods: Consecutive ED patients presenting with CUE were prospectively enrolled. We obtained the suspected diagnoses or working hypotheses from standardized reports given by prehospital emergency care providers, both paramedics and emergency physicians. Suspected and final diagnoses were classified into I) acute primary brain lesions, II) primary brain pathologies without acute lesions and III) pathologies that affected the brain secondarily. We compared suspected and final diagnosis with percent agreement and Cohen's Kappa including sub-group analyses for paramedics and physicians. Furthermore, we tested the value of suspected and final diagnoses as predictors for mortality with binary logistic regression models.

Results: Overall, suspected and final diagnoses matched in 62% of 835 enrolled patients. Cohen's Kappa showed a value of κ = .415 (95% CI .361-.469, p < .005). There was no relevant difference in diagnostic accuracy between paramedics and physicians. Suspected diagnoses did not significantly interact with in-hospital mortality (e.g., suspected class I: OR .982, 95% CI .518-1.836) while final diagnoses interacted strongly (e.g., final class I: OR 5.425, 95% CI 3.409-8.633).

Conclusion: In cases of CUE, the suspected diagnosis is unreliable, regardless of different pre-hospital care providers' qualifications. It is not an appropriate decision-making tool as it neither sufficiently predicts the final diagnosis nor detects the especially critical comatose patient. To avoid the risk of mistriage and unnecessarily delayed therapy, we advocate for a standardized diagnostic work-up for all CUE patients that should be triggered by the emergency symptom alone and not by any suspected diagnosis.

Keywords: Coma; Diagnostic accuracy; Diagnostic errors; Disorder of consciousness; Emergency medical services.

Publication types

  • Observational Study

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Coma / etiology*
  • Emergency Medical Technicians*
  • Emergency Service, Hospital
  • Female
  • Glasgow Coma Scale
  • Hospital Mortality
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Physicians*
  • Prospective Studies