Objective: Dyspnea is the second most common symptom experienced by the approximately 4.5 million patients with cancer presenting to emergency departments (ED) each year. Distinguishing pneumonia, the most common reason for presentation, from other causes of dyspnea is challenging. This report characterizes the diagnostic uncertainty in patients with dyspnea and pneumonia presenting to an ED by establishing the rates of co-diagnosis, co-treatment, and misdiagnosis.
Methods: Visits by individuals ≥18 years old with cancer who presented with a complaint of dyspnea were identified using the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey between 2012-2014 and analyzed for rates of co-diagnosis, co-treatment (treatment or diagnosis for >1 of pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD], and heart failure), and misdiagnosis of pneumonia. Additionally, we assessed rates of diagnostic uncertainty (co-diagnosis, co-treatment, or a lone diagnosis of dyspnea not otherwise specified [NOS]).
Results: Among dyspneic cancer visits (1,593,930), 15.2% (95% confidence interval [CI], 11.1-20.5%) were diagnosed with pneumonia, 22.5% (95% CI, 16.7-29.7%) with COPD, and 7.4% (95% CI 4.7-11.4%) with heart failure. Dyspnea NOS was diagnosed in 32.3% (95% CI, 25.7-39.7%) of visits and as the only diagnosis in 23.1% (95% CI, 16.3-31.6%) of all visits. Co-diagnosis occurred in 4.0% (95% CI, 2.0-7.6%) of dyspneic adults with cancer and co-treatment in 12.1% (95% CI, 7.5-18.9%). Agreement between emergency physician and inpatient documentation for presence of pneumonia was 57.7% (95% CI, 37.0-76.1%).
Conclusion: Diagnostic uncertainty remains a significant concern in patients with cancer presenting to the ED with dyspnea. Clinical uncertainty among dyspneic patients results in both misdiagnosis and under-treatment of patients with pneumonia and cancer.