How often does pulmonary embolism (PE) go undiagnosed and why?

Updated: Sep 18, 2020
  • Author: Daniel R Ouellette, MD, FCCP; Chief Editor: Zab Mosenifar, MD, FACP, FCCP  more...
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The variability of presentation for pulmonary embolism (PE) sets the patient and clinician up for potentially missing the diagnosis. Such missed diagnoses occur in approximately 400,000 patients in the United States per year; approximately 100,000 deaths could be prevented with proper diagnosis and treatment.

The diagnostic challenge is that the "classic" presentation of the condition, with abrupt onset of pleuritic chest pain, shortness of breath, and hypoxia, is rarely seen. Studies of patients who died unexpectedly from PE have revealed that the patients complained of nagging symptoms, often for weeks, before dying. Forty percent of these patients had been seen by a physician in the weeks prior to their death. [7]

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