How do emergency physicians make discharge decisions?

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One of the most important decisions that emergency department (ED) physicians make is patient disposition (admission vs discharge).


To determine how ED physicians perceive their discharge decisions for high-acuity patients and the impact on adverse events (adverse outcomes associated with healthcare management).


We conducted a real-time survey of staff ED physicians discharging consecutive patients from high-acuity areas of a tertiary care ED. We asked open-ended questions about rationale for discharge decisions and use of clinical judgement versus evidence. We searched for 30-day flagged outcomes (deaths, unscheduled admissions, ED or clinic visits). Three trained blinded ED physicians independently reviewed these for adverse events and preventability. We resolved disagreements by consensus. We used descriptive statistics and 95% CIs.


We interviewed 88.9% (32/36) of possible ED physicians for 366 discharge decisions. Respondents were mostly male (71.9%) and experienced (53.1% >10□years). ED physicians stated they used clinical judgement in 87.6% of decisions and evidence in 12.4%. There were 69 flagged outcomes (18.8%) and 10 adverse events (2.7%, 95% CI 1.1 to 4.5%). All adverse events were preventable (1 death, 4 admissions, 5 return ED visits). No significant associations occurred between decision-making rationale and adverse events.


Experienced ED physicians most often relied on clinical acumen rather than evidence-based guidelines when discharging patients from ED high-acuity areas. Neither approach was associated with adverse events. In order to improve the safety of discharge decisions, further research should focus on decision support solutions and feedback interventions.

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