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To evaluate the relationship between chief complaints and their underlying diseases and outcome in medical emergency departments (EDs).All 34 333 patients who attended two of the EDs of the Charité Berlin over a 1-year period were included in the analysis. Data were retrieved from the hospital information system. For study purposes, the chief complaint (chest pain, dyspnoea, abdominal pain, headache or ‘none of these symptoms’) was prospectively documented in an electronic file by the ED-physician. Documentation was mandatory.The majority of patients (66%) presented with ‘none of these symptoms’, 11.5% with chest pain, 11.1% with abdominal pain and 7.4% with dyspnoea. In total, 39.4% of all patients were admitted to the hospital. The leading diagnosis was acute coronary syndrome (50.7%) for chest pain in-patients and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (16.5%) and heart failure (16.1%) for in-patients with dyspnoea. The causes of abdominal pain in in-patients were of diverse gastrointestinal origin (47.2%). In-hospital mortality of in-patients was 4.7%. Patients with chest pain had significantly lower in-hospital mortality (0.9%) than patients with dyspnoea (9.4%) and abdominal pain (5.1%).The majority of emergency patients lack diagnosis-specific symptoms. Chief complaints help preselect patients but must not be mistaken as disease specific. Mortality largely differs depending on the chief complaint. In chest pain patients, standardized processes may be one factor that explains the low mortality in this group.