Triage decisions for emergency department patients with chest pain: do physicians' risk attitudes make the difference?

J Gen Intern Med. 1995 Oct;10(10):557-64. doi: 10.1007/BF02640365.


Objective: To determine whether physicians' risk attitudes correlate with their triage decisions for emergency department patients with acute chest pain.

Design: Cohort.

Setting: The emergency department of a university teaching hospital.

Patients: Patients presenting to the emergency department with a chief complaint of acute chest pain. PHYSICIANS: All physicians who were primarily responsible for the emergency department triage of at least one patient with acute chest pain from July 1990 to July 1991.

Methods: The physicians' risk attitudes were assessed by two methods: 1) a new, six-question risk-taking scale adapted from the Jackson Personality Index (JPI), and 2) the Stress from Uncertainty Scale (SUS).

Results: The physicians who had high risk-taking scores ("risk seekers") admitted only 31% of the patients they evaluated, compared with admission rates of 44% for the medium scores and 53% for the physicians who had low risk-taking scores ("risk avoiders"), p < 0.001. After adjustment for clinical factors, the patients triaged by the risk-seeking physicians had half the odds of admission [odds ratio (OR) 0.51, 95% confidence interval (95% CI) 0.27 to 0.97], and the patients triaged by the risk-avoiding physicians had nearly twice the odds of admission (OR 1.83, 95% CI 1.10 to 3.03) of the patients triaged by the medium-risk scoring physicians. The SUS did not correlate significantly with admission rates. Of the 92 patients released home by the risk-seeking physicians, 91 (99%) were known to be alive four to six weeks afterwards and one was lost to follow-up; among the 66 patients released by the risk-avoiding physicians, 64 (97%) were known to be alive at four to six weeks, one was lost to follow-up, and one died of ischemic heart disease during a subsequent hospitalization (p = NS).

Conclusions: The physicians' risk attitudes as measured by a brief risk-taking scale correlated significantly with their rates of admission for emergency department patients with acute chest pain. These data do not suggest that the risk-seeking physicians achieved lower admission rates by releasing more patients who needed to be in the hospital, but an adequate evaluation of the appropriateness of triage decisions of risk-seeking and risk-avoiding physicians will require further study.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Chest Pain / therapy*
  • Cohort Studies
  • Emergency Service, Hospital*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Outcome Assessment, Health Care
  • Physicians / psychology*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Risk-Taking*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Triage*