Improving the risk assessment of patients with acute pulmonary embolism

Hospital-based physicians may be doing a suboptimal job of data collection


Who doesn’t like alphabet soup? Those noodles shaped as letters floating in a delicious hot broth serve as an educational way for young children to play with their food. Of course, this commentary is not about warm food suitable for a cold day but, instead, about another notion of alphabet soup – a metaphor for physicians’ failure to optimally utilize our alphabet soup of venous thromboembolism studies.

The medical literature that has studied the incidence, prevalence, diagnosis, and management of acute pulmonary embolism (PE) is vast. Yes, we have our own PE “alphabet soup” – a “hodgepodge especially of initials,” according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. ICOPER (International Cooperative Pulmonary Embolism Registry) and RIETE (Computerized Registry of Patients with Venous Thromboembolism) help estimate prevalence of the disease and indicate high-risk groups. PESI (Pulmonary Embolism Severity Index) and PERC (Pulmonary Embolism Rule-Out Criteria) provide useful predictive information prior to proceeding with diagnostic testing for PE. The PEITHO (Pulmonary Embolism Thrombolysis), MOPETT (Moderate Pulmonary Embolism Treated with Thrombolysis), and PERFECT (Pulmonary Embolism Response to Fragmentation, Embolectomy, and Catheter Thrombolysis) studies help to guide the decision to administer fibrinolytic therapy, particularly in the cases of so-called submassive or intermediate-risk PE.

Dr. Michael L. Scharf

We have no shortage of registries, scoring criteria, and clinical studies standing by to guide us in the management of acute PE. With this plethora of acronyms in scholarly publications, it would seem that health professionals should be well informed and better prepared to manage acute PE than ever.

And yet, in a study published in Hospital Practice (2017 Aug 30. doi: 10.1080/21548331.2017.1372033), my colleagues and I showed that, to a large extent, physicians admitting patients to the hospital between 2011 and 2013 for acute PE failed to order or perform even the most basic noninvasive testing on their patients, despite strong recommendations for such testing from both the 2011 American Heart Association (AHA) and the 2014 European Society of Cardiology as part of the risk assessment of acute PE.

At the time of the patients’ PE admissions, the 2011 AHA statement already had been published, and it was recognized that medical and interventional therapies needed to be appropriate to the characteristics of the patient with PE. Specifically, in order to determine a prognosis, assessment of right heart strain with an echocardiogram, ECG, and brain natriuretic peptide testing was recommended. For similar reasons, a serum troponin test was recommended to evaluate any myocardial necrosis.

While the 2011 AHA statement was based on a preponderance of evidence-based medicine, our research suggests that physicians may be doing a suboptimal job of collecting the necessary data to manage our acute PE patients. In defense of those physicians we evaluated, these data were collected just before the European Society of Cardiology disseminated their recommendations for risk stratification in 2014. The PEITHO, MOPETT, and PERFECT findings – though already presented at medical meetings in part – were not published in scientific journals in full until 2013 or thereafter.

Nevertheless, I believe these findings illustrate the merits of the Pulmonary Embolism Response Team (PERT) concept. As the data we studied suggest, not only might hospital-based physicians inadequately assess the severity of patients’ PE, but they also may fail to ask for consultations from the specialists who could be most useful in assisting in the proper evaluation and management of these patients. PERTs ensure that every patient admitted to the hospital with the diagnosis of PE will be assessed by a team of physicians with the expertise and professional interest in best managing these patients.

The expectation is that, with the institution of a PERT at each hospital, a more complete evaluation of patients’ PE may lead to optimal management and, thereby, to improved short- and long-term outcomes. Also, we should not assume that a greater degree of expertise and imaging capabilities at an academic university hospital translates to a more complete evaluation of PE; our research shows that this is not necessarily the case. PERTs may help mobilize resources that are underutilized even at academic university hospitals. Those interested in learning more about PERTs may contact the National PERT Consortium via email at [email protected] or go online to

Rather than wallow in an alphabet soup of acronyms, let us place our acronymic clinical PE trials to good use. Gather the appropriate clinical data, consult experts in pulmonary embolism, and stratify patients admitted to the hospital with acute PE so that we can manage the expectations of short- and long-term outcomes.

When he became president in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to lift the United States from the Great Depression, in part with a New Deal “alphabet soup” of programs. Like FDR, let us put our own alphabet soup – of PE studies and position statements – to good use: to work for the good of people hospitalized with acute pulmonary embolism.

Dr. Scharf is medical director of pulmonary outpatient services at the Jane and Leonard Korman Respiratory Institute at Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia. He is also director of the pulmonary vascular disease program at Jefferson.

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