From a recent NEJM report:
The prevalence of pulmonary embolism among patients hospitalized for syncope is not well documented, and current guidelines pay little attention to a diagnostic workup for pulmonary embolism in these patients.
We performed a systematic workup for pulmonary embolism in patients admitted to 11 hospitals in Italy for a first episode of syncope, regardless of whether there were alternative explanations for the syncope. The diagnosis of pulmonary embolism was ruled out in patients who had a low pretest clinical probability, which was defined according to the Wells score, in combination with a negative d-dimer assay. In all other patients, computed tomographic pulmonary angiography or ventilation–perfusion lung scanning was performed. Results
ResultsA total of 560 patients (mean age, 76 years) were included in the study. A diagnosis of pulmonary embolism was ruled out in 330 of the 560 patients (58.9%) on the basis of the combination of a low pretest clinical probability of pulmonary embolism and negative d-dimer assay. Among the remaining 230 patients, pulmonary embolism was identified in 97 (42.2%). In the entire cohort, the prevalence of pulmonary embolism was 17.3% (95% confidence interval, 14.2 to 20.5). Evidence of an embolus in a main pulmonary or lobar artery or evidence of perfusion defects larger than 25% of the total area of both lungs was found in 61 patients. Pulmonary embolism was identified in 45 of the 355 patients (12.7%) who had an alternative explanation for syncope and in 52 of the 205 patients (25.4%) who did not.
Pulmonary embolism was identified in nearly one of every six patients hospitalized for a first episode of syncope
But, as pointed out by the blogger at Emergency Medicine Literature of Note, this should not be as shocking as it sounds (and will be spun by the popular media). As pointed out there:
The primary issue here is the almost certain inappropriate generalization of these results to dissimilar clinical settings. During the study period, there were 2,584 patients presenting to the Emergency Department with a final diagnosis of syncope. Of these, 1,867 were deemed to have an obvious or non-serious alternative cause of syncope and were discharged home. Thus, less than a third of ED visits for syncope were admitted, and the admission cohort is quite old – with a median age for admitted patients of 80 (IQR 72-85). There is incomplete descriptive data given regarding their comorbidities, but the authors state admission criteria included “severe coexisting conditions” and “a high probability of cardiac syncope on the basis of the Evaluation of Guidelines in Syncope Study score.” In short, their admission cohort is almost certainly older and more chronically ill than many practice settings.
Then, there are some befuddling features presented that would serve to inflate their overall prevalence estimate. A full 40.2% of those diagnosed with pulmonary embolism had “Clinical signs of deep-vein thrombosis” in their lower extremities, while 45.4% were tachypneic and 33.0% were tachycardic. These clinical features raise important questions regarding the adequacy of the Emergency Department evaluation; if many of these patients with syncope had symptoms suggestive of PE, why wasn’t the diagnosis made in ED? If even only the patients with clinical signs of DVT were evaluated prior to admission, those imaging studies would have had a yield for PE of 65%, and the prevalence number seen in this study would drop from 17.3% to 10.3%. Further evaluation of either patients with tachypnea or tachycardia might have been similarly high-yield, and further reduced the prevalence of PE in admitted patients.
Put another way, it is likely that many of these patients with PE had all the red flags. It has long been known that PE can present with syncope. When it does it tends (in my subjective experience) to be massive or submassive and would likely yield electrocardiographic or echocardiographic clues. Selective use of imaging based on clinical assessment would likely find these patients. So, I tend to agree with the blogger that while this study should not change practice all that much it in all likelihood will.