Chest pain centers: diagnosis of acute coronary syndromes

A B Storrow, W B Gibler
Annals of Emergency Medicine 2000, 35 (5): 449-61
Chest pain centers in the emergency department have generally been accepted as a safe, cost-effective, and rapid approach to the evaluation, triage, and management of patients with potential acute coronary syndromes. These centers were initially designed to enhance patient care by decreasing time to treatment for acute myocardial infarction (AMI) and rapidly identifying patients with unstable angina. They also included community outreach and educational objectives designed to reduce time from the onset of chest pain to ED presentation. In the past decade, health care financial constraints have created additional impetus to the development of chest pain centers. Cost reduction efforts have occurred to reduce hospitalizations, lengths of stay, and unnecessary treatments and procedures. Practitioners and administrators try to balance these goals with the imperative to provide high-quality patient care. Protocol-driven approaches have been developed for specific disease processes in emergency settings. The chest pain center concept is such an approach for patients with chest pain. Chest pain is the second most common ED presenting complaint and is a symptom related to the leading cause of death in the United States, coronary artery disease (CAD). One third of ED patients with chest pain will eventually have a diagnosis of acute coronary syndrome. Many patients with acute coronary syndromes have atypical presentations that are not diagnosed in the ED with the traditional diagnostic evaluation of a history, physical examination, and 12-lead ECG. If they are not admitted to the hospital for further evaluation, the diagnosis may be missed. The 2% to 5% of AMI patients who are inadvertently released home often have poor outcomes and result in a leading cause of malpractice suits in emergency medicine. More than one half of ED patients with chest pain have clinical findings after their initial evaluation consistent with acute coronary syndromes and are admitted to the hospital. Approximately one half of these patients, after evaluation in the hospital, are found not to have acute coronary syndromes. The cost for these negative inpatient cardiac evaluations has been estimated to be $6 billion in the United States each year. Today, chest pain centers serve as an integral component of many EDs. Their success and safety is the result of a focused, protocol-driven approach directed at the acute coronary syndrome continuum from unstable angina to transmural Q-wave myocardial infarction. New therapies for acute coronary syndromes make ED triage and risk stratification increasingly important. Although different chest pain center protocols have proved effective, all address the diagnosis and rapid treatment of acute myocardial necrosis, rest ischemia, and exercise-induced ischemia. Identifying patients with coronary artery disease in one of these stages in the spectrum of myocardial ischemia is the foundation for a successful chest pain center in the ED.

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