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Psychological distress in medical patients seeking ED care for somatic reasons: results of a systematic literature review


Objectives The aim of this systematic literature review is to investigate (A) currently used instruments for assessing psychological distress, (B) the prevalence of psychological distress in medical emergency department (ED) patients with acute somatic conditions and (C) empirical evidence on how predictors are associated with psychological distress.

Methods We conducted an electronic literature search using three databases to identify studies that used validated instruments for detection of psychological distress in adult patients presented to the ED with somatic (non-psychiatric) complaints. From a total of 1688 potential articles, 18 studies were selected for in-depth review.

Results A total of 13 instruments have been applied for assessment of distress including screening questionnaires and briefly structured clinical interviews. Using these instruments, the prevalence of psychological distress detected in medical ED patients was between 4% and 47%. Psychological distress in general and particularly depression and anxiety have been found to be associated with demographic factors (eg, female gender, middle age) and illness-related variables (eg, urgency of triage category). Some studies reported that coexisting psychological distress of medical patients identified in the ED was associated with physical and psychological health status after ED discharge. Importantly, during routine clinical care, only few patients with psychological distress were diagnosed by their treating physicians.

Conclusions There is strong evidence that psychological distress is an important and prevalent cofactor in medically ill patients presenting to the ED with harmful associations with (subjective) health outcomes. To prove causality, future research should investigate whether screening and lowering psychological distress with specific interventions would result in better patient outcomes.

  • psychological conditions
  • emergency department
  • mental illness

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