Clinician and Caregiver Determinations of Acuity for Children Transported by Emergency Medical Services: A Prospective Observational Study

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date



Annals of emergency medicine




STUDY OBJECTIVE: Many Emergency Medical Services (EMS) agencies have developed alternative disposition processes for patients with nonemergency problems, but there is a lack of evidence demonstrating EMS clinicians can accurately determine acuity in pediatric patients. Our study objective was to determine EMS and other stakeholders' ability to identify low acuity pediatric EMS patients. METHODS: We conducted a prospective, observational study of children transported to a pediatric emergency department by EMS. Acuity was defined using a composite measure that included data from the patient's vital signs and examination, resources used (laboratory results, radiographs, etc), and disposition. For each patient, an EMS clinician, patient caregiver, ED nurse, and ED provider completed a survey as soon as possible after the patient's arrival at the ED. The survey asked respondents 2 questions: to state their level of agreement that a patient was low acuity and could the patient have been managed by various alternative dispositions. For each respondent group, we calculated the sensitivity, specificity, and positive and negative predictive values for low acuity versus the composite measure. RESULTS: From August 2020 through September 2021, we approached 1,015 caregivers, of whom 996 (99.8%) agreed to participate and completed the survey. Survey completion varied between 78.7% and 84.1% for EMS and ED nurses and providers. The mean patient age was 7 years, 62.6% were non-Hispanic Black, and 60% were enrolled in public insurance programs. Of the 996 patient encounters, 33% were determined to be low acuity by the composite measure. The positive predictive value for EMS clinicians when identifying low acuity children was 0.60 (95% confidence intervals [CI], 0.58 to 0.67). The positive predictive value for ED nurses and providers was 0.67 (95% CI, 0.61 to 0.72) and 0.68 (95% CI, 0.63 to 0.74) respectively. The negative predictive value for EMS clinicians when identifying not low acuity children was 0.62 (95% CI, 0.58 to 0.67). The negative predictive value for ED nurses and providers was 0.72 (95% CI, 0.68 to 0.76) and 0.73 (95% CI, 0.70 to 0.77) respectively. Caregivers had the lowest positive predictive value 0.34 (95% CI, 0.30 to 0.40) but the highest negative predictive value 0.82 (95% CI, 0.79 to 0.85). The EMS clinicians, ED nurses and providers were more likely than caregivers to think that a child with a low acuity complaint could have been safely managed by alternative disposition. CONCLUSION: All 4 groups studied had a limited ability to identify which children transported by EMS would have no emergency resource needs, and support for alternative disposition was limited. For children to be included in alternative disposition processes, novel triage tools, training, and oversight will be required to prevent undertriage.