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November 20, 1996

The Use of Empiric Clinical Data in the Evaluation of Practice Guidelines for Unstable Angina

Author Affiliations

From the Divisions of Clinical Decision Making (Drs Katz and Selker) and Clinical Care Research (Drs Griffith and Selker and Ms Beshansky), Department of Medicine, New England Medical Center, Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston, Mass.

JAMA. 1996;276(19):1568-1574. doi:10.1001/jama.1996.03540190040027

Objective.  —To determine the applicability to emergency department (ED) clinical practice of a nationally disseminated practice guideline on the disposition of patients with a diagnosis of unstable angina, and to determine the potential impact of the guideline on hospital admissions and demand for intensive care beds.

Design.  —Application of guideline criteria for ED disposition decisions to a validation sample derived from a prospective clinical trial.

Setting.  —Five hospitals, including 2 urban general teaching hospitals, 2 urban tertiary care university hospitals, and 1 suburban university-affiliated community hospital.

Patients.  —A consecutive sample of 457 patients who presented with symptoms suggestive of acute cardiac ischemia and who had "unstable angina" or "rule out unstable angina" diagnosed by ED physicians. Greater than 90% of eligible patients were enrolled in the clinical trial; follow-up data sufficient for assignment of a definitive diagnosis were obtained for 99% of subjects.

Main Outcome Measures.  —Acute myocardial infarction and unstable angina, based on blind review of initial and follow-up clinical data, including cardiac enzyme levels and electrocardiograms. After completion of the trial, without knowledge of final diagnosis or outcome, the investigators classified patients into risk groups specified by the unstable angina guideline.

Results.  —Of subjects with an ED diagnosis of unstable angina, only 6% (n=28) met the guideline's criteria corresponding to low risk for adverse events and were therefore suitable for discharge directly to home. Fifty-four percent (n=247) met the intermediate-risk criteria; 40% (n=182) met the high-risk criteria and were identified as requiring admission to an intensive care unit. Actual ED disposition differed from guideline recommendations in 2 major areas: only 4% (1/28) of low-risk patients were discharged to home with outpatient follow-up, and only 40% (72/182) of highrisk patients were admitted to an intensive care unit.

Conclusions.  —Although the guideline was intended to reduce hospitalization by identifying a low-risk group, the small size of this group among ED patients suggests that little reduction in hospitalization can be expected. Indeed, the guideline may increase demand for the limited number of intensive care beds to accommodate patients with unstable angina considered high-risk but currently placed elsewhere. These results emphasize the need to use empiric data from target clinical settings to assess the likely actual impact of guidelines on clinical care prior to national dissemination.