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Do we know what people die of in the emergency department?


Objective: To establish the discrepancy rate between the predicted cause of death and the actual cause of death as determined by postmortem examination result, for all deaths in the emergency department reported to the Scottish Procurator Fiscal and subsequently undergoing postmortem examination.

Methods: A prospective study of all patients who were dead on arrival or died in the emergency department of a busy Glasgow hospital over a 12 month period. The most senior emergency physician present at the time of death predicted the cause of death. This was then compared to the actual postmortem examination determined cause of death and was considered either to be correct or incorrect.

Results: During the study period, 146 patients were pronounced dead in the department. Of these, 81 patients (age range 39–99 years, median 71; male:female 2.5:1) had death certificates issued, 63 patients (age range 26 days to 99 years, median 48; male:female 2.4:1) had a postmortem performed by the forensic pathologist, and two patients underwent a “view and grant”. Of the 63 deaths reported to the Procurator Fiscal, the emergency physician attributed 51 (80.1%) to non-trauma, 9 (14.2%) to trauma, and in 3 (4.7%) cases were uncertain. Of the 63 (39.7%) deaths, 25 were inaccurately predicted (99% confidence interval 24.3% to 56.6%; p<0.0)1. Cardiovascular related and drugs poisoning deaths occurred most commonly. They were also the most accurately predicted cause of deaths. Intracranial events, pulmonary thromboembolism, and airway obstruction were also frequently predicted, but were often wrong.

Conclusions: This study highlights the difficulties in accurately identifying cause of death for patients who die suddenly. This could have implications for the accuracy of health service statistics.

  • ED, emergency department
  • GP, general pracitioner
  • PF, Procurator Fiscal
  • PME, postmortem examination
  • PTE, pulmonary thromboembolism
  • accident and emergency
  • cardiac disease
  • misdiagnosis
  • post mortem
  • sudden death

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