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Is the Mallampati Score Useful for Emergency Department Airway Management or Procedural Sedation?

We review the literature in regard to the accuracy, reliability, and feasibility of the Mallampati score as might be pertinent and applicable to emergency department (ED) airway management and procedural sedation. This 4-level pictorial tool was devised to predict difficult preoperative laryngoscopy and intubation, but is now also widely recommended as a routine screening element before procedural sedation. The literature evidence demonstrates that the Mallampati score is inadequately sensitive for the identification of difficult laryngoscopy, difficult intubation, and difficult bag-valve-mask ventilation, with likelihood ratios indicating a small and clinically insignificant effect on outcome prediction. Although it is important to anticipate that patients may have a difficult airway, there is no specific evidence that the Mallampati score augments or improves the baseline clinical judgment of a standard airway evaluation. It generates numerous false-positive warnings for each correct prediction of a difficult airway. The Mallampati score is not reliably assessed because independent observers commonly grade it differently. It cannot be evaluated in many young children and in patients who cannot cooperate because of their underlying medical condition. The Mallampati score lacks the accuracy, reliability, and feasibility required to supplement a standard airway evaluation before ED airway management or procedural sedation.

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