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Diagnosis and Treatment |

Diagnosing Pulmonary Embolism: New Facts and Strategies

Mark A. Kelley, MD; Jeffrey L. Carson, MD; Harold I. Palevsky, MD; and J. Sanford Schwartz, MD
[+] Article and Author Information

Current Author Addresses: Dr. Kelley: University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, 21 Penn Tower, Philadelphia, PA 19104-4385.

Dr. Carson: Division of General Internal Medicine, UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, 97 Paterson Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08903.

Dr. Palevsky: Department of Medicine, Section of Pulmonary and Critical Care, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia, PA 19104-4283.

Dr. Schwartz: Section of General Internal Medicine and Clinical Epidemiology Unit, Department of Medicine, School of Medicine, Departmentof Health Care Systems, The Wharton School, and the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics, CPC Building, 3641 Locust Walk, Philadelphia PA 19104-6218.


© 1991 American College of PhysiciansAmerican College of Physicians


Ann Intern Med. 1991;114(4):300-306. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-114-4-300
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Purpose: To provide a clinical approach to the diagnosis of pulmonary embolism.

Data Identification: An English-language literature search using MEDLINE (1982 to 1990) and bibliographic reviews of textbooks and review articles.

Study Selection: In addition to several reviews, studies that evaluated the diagnostic technology of pulmonary embolism were selected. Preference was given to studies with a prospective design, particularly those done within the past decade.

Data Extraction: Studies were assessed independently by three unblinded observers. Data were chosen to describe the efficacy of diagnostic technology on the basis of disease prevalence, sensitivity and specificity, and predictive value.

Results of Data Analysis: A normal lung scan or pulmonary angiogram rules out the diagnosis of clinically important pulmonary embolism with at least 95% certainty. Lung scan interpretations indicating high or low probability have approximately a 15% error in diagnosing or ruling out pulmonary embolism. The accuracy of either scan result improves when the clinical suspicion of pulmonary embolism matches the lung scan result. Serial impedance plethysmography of the lower extremities may exclude thromboembolism with 95% certainty in patients without high-probability lung scan results or cardiopulmonary disease.

Conclusions: The combination of clinical suspicion and the results of the lung scan and impedance plethysmography appear to offer acceptable diagnostic accuracy in evaluating many patients suspected of having pulmonary embolism. The usefulness of this approach for patients with cardiopulmonary disease is still unknown.

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