Background: Pulmonary embolism has historically presented a formidable diagnostic problem because of the nonspecificity of the clinical findings associated with this disorder and the diagnostic uncertainties and challenges presented by both ventilation-perfusion lung scanning and pulmonary angiography. We have reported previously that serial noninvasive leg testing provides a practical noninvasive alternative to pulmonary angiography in patients with non-high probability (nondiagnostic) lung scans and adequate cardiorespiratory reserve. We have reevaluated this observation prospectively to (1) confirm or refute our original observation in an independent cohort and (2) to increase the numbers sufficiently to provide narrow confidence limits for the observed outcomes.
Methods: A prospective comparative study in 1564 consecutive patients with suspected pulmonary embolism who underwent ventilation-perfusion lung scanning and objective testing for proximal-vein thrombosis.
Results: On long-term follow-up of 627 patients with the following characteristics: (1) abnormal, nondiagnostic lung scans, (2) not taking anticoagulant therapy, and (3) serial noninvasive test results negative for proximal-vein thrombosis, only 12 patients (1.9%; 95% confidence limits, 0.8% to 3.0%) had venous thromboembolism. By comparison, venous thromboembolism on follow-up occurred in four (0.7%) of 586 patients (95% confidence limits, 0.02% to 1.3%) with normal lung scans in whom anticoagulant therapy was withheld and in eight (5.5%) of 145 patients (95% confidence limits, 1.8% to 9.2%) with high probability lung scans who received anticoagulant therapy.
Conclusions: Our findings indicate that the clinician has a practical noninvasive strategy in patients with adequate cardiorespiratory reserve and nondiagnostic lung scans that (1) avoids pulmonary angiography, (2) identifies patients with proximal-vein thrombosis who require treatment, and (3) avoids the need for treatment and further investigation in the majority of patients.