Point-of-Care Ultrasonography in Patients With Acute Dyspnea: An Evidence Report for a Clinical Practice Guideline by the American College of Physicians

Ann Intern Med. 2021 Jul;174(7):967-976. doi: 10.7326/M20-5504. Epub 2021 Apr 27.


Background: Dyspnea is a common and often debilitating symptom with a complex diagnostic work-up.

Purpose: To evaluate the benefits, harms, and diagnostic test accuracy of point-of-care ultrasonography (POCUS) in patients with acute dyspnea. (PROSPERO: CRD42019126419).

Data sources: Searches of multiple electronic databases without language limitations (January 2004 to August 2020) and reference lists of pertinent articles and reviews.

Study selection: Five randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and 44 prospective cohort-type studies in patients with acute dyspnea evaluated POCUS as a diagnostic tool to determine the underlying cause of dyspnea. Two investigators independently screened the literature for inclusion.

Data extraction: Data abstraction by a single investigator was confirmed by a second investigator; 2 investigators independently rated risk of bias and determined certainty of evidence.

Data synthesis: Point-of-care ultrasonography, when added to a standard diagnostic pathway, led to statistically significantly more correct diagnoses in patients with dyspnea than the standard diagnostic pathway alone. In-hospital mortality and length of hospital stay did not differ significantly between patients who did or did not receive POCUS in addition to standard diagnostic tests. Finally, POCUS consistently improved the sensitivities of standard diagnostic pathways to detect congestive heart failure, pneumonia, pulmonary embolism, pleural effusion, or pneumothorax; specificities increased in most but not all studies.

Limitations: Most studies assessed diagnostic test accuracy, which has limited utility for clinical decision making. Studies rarely reported on the proportion of indeterminate sonography results, and no evidence is available on adverse health outcomes of false-positive or false-negative POCUS results.

Conclusion: Point-of-care ultrasonography can improve the correctness of diagnosis in patients with acute dyspnea.

Primary funding source: American College of Physicians.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Critical Pathways
  • Dyspnea / diagnostic imaging*
  • Dyspnea / etiology*
  • Hospital Mortality
  • Humans
  • Length of Stay
  • Patient Readmission
  • Point-of-Care Testing*
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Ultrasonography* / adverse effects