The clinical course of patients with suspected pulmonary embolism

Arch Intern Med. 1997 Dec 8-22;157(22):2593-8. doi: 10.1001/archinte.157.22.2593.


Background: The outcome of patients with suspected pulmonary embolism is known to a limited extent only.

Objective: To address this limited knowledge in a cohort in whom pulmonary embolism was proved or ruled out.

Methods: Consecutive patients with clinically suspected pulmonary embolism underwent lung scintigraphy and angiography if required. Pulmonary embolism was excluded by normal results of a lung scan or angiogram, and, if so, anticoagulant therapy was withheld. Pulmonary embolism was proved with a high-probability perfusion-ventilation lung scan or a confirmatory angiogram if a nondiagnostic lung scan was obtained. These patients were treated with heparin intravenously and anticoagulants orally on a long-term basis. All patients were followed up for 6 months, with a special focus on recurrent thromboembolism, bleeding complications, and mortality.

Results: A total of 487 consecutive inpatients and outpatients were included. Pulmonary embolism was excluded or proved in 243 and 193 patients, respectively. In 51 patients a definite diagnosis could not be established. The overall prevalence of pulmonary embolism was 39%. In patients in whom pulmonary embolism was proved, excluded, or uncertain, recurrent venous thromboembolism was observed in 2.6%, 0.9%, and 2%, respectively. Serious bleeding complications occurred in 7 patients (3.3%; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.8%-6.3%), 2 cases of which were fatal. The total mortality after 6 months in patients with proved or excluded pulmonary embolism was 17% (95% CI, 12%-23%) and 11% (95% CI, 7%-15%), respectively. Death was related to (recurrent) pulmonary embolism in 5% and 0% of these cases, respectively.

Conclusions: During a 6-month period, recurrent pulmonary embolism occurred in approximately 5 patients (2.5%) who were treated for a previous episode. Fatal bleeding complications attributable to the use of anticoagulants were encountered in 1%. The mortality among patients with suspected pulmonary embolism was considerable. However, most deaths were unrelated to pulmonary embolism, but were the result of serious underlying illnesses.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Cause of Death
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pulmonary Embolism / complications
  • Pulmonary Embolism / diagnosis*
  • Pulmonary Embolism / mortality
  • Pulmonary Embolism / physiopathology*
  • Survival Analysis
  • Ventilation-Perfusion Ratio