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Evaluation and disposition of older adults presenting to the emergency department with abdominal pain

Journal of the American Geriatrics Society February 1, 2022

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Research Areas

PAIR Center Research Team


BACKGROUND: Abdominal pain is the most common chief complaint in US emergency departments (EDs) among patients over 65, who are at high risk of mortality or incident disability after the ED encounter. We sought to characterize the evaluation, management, and disposition of older adults who present to the ED with abdominal pain.

METHODS: We performed a survey-weighted analysis of the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NHAMCS), comparing older adults with a chief complaint of abdominal pain to those without. Visits from 2013 to 2017 to nationally representative EDs were included. We analyzed 81,509 visits to 1211 US EDs, which projects to 531,780,629 ED visits after survey weighting. We report the diagnostic testing, evaluation, management, additional reasons for visit, and disposition of ED visits.

RESULTS: Among older adults (≥65 years), 7% of ED visits were for abdominal pain. Older patients with abdominal pain had a lower probability of being triaged to the “Emergent” (ESI2) acuity on arrival (7.1% vs. 14.8%) yet were more likely to be admitted directly to the operating room than older adults without abdominal pain (3.6% vs. 0.8%), with no statistically significant differences in discharge home, death, or admission to critical care. Ultrasound or CT imaging was performed in 60% of older adults with abdominal pain. A minority (39%) of older patients with abdominal pain received an electrocardiogram (EKG).

CONCLUSIONS: Abdominal pain in older adults presenting to EDs is a serious condition yet is triaged to “emergent” acuity at half the rate of other conditions. Opportunities for improving diagnosis and management may exist. Further research is needed to examine whether improved recognition of abdominal pain as a syndromic presentation would improve patient outcomes.


National Institute on Aging