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Objectives: (1) To determine the value of emergency department chief complaint (CC) and International Classification of Disease diagnostic codes for identifying respiratory illness in a pediatric population and (2) to modify standard respiratory CC and diagnostic code sets to better identify respiratory illness in children.

Results: We determined the sensitivity and specificity of CC and diagnostic codes by comparing code groups with a criterion standard. CC and diagnostic codes for 500 pediatric emergency department patients were retrospectively classified as respiratory or nonrespiratory. Respiratory diagnostic codes were further classified as upper or lower respiratory. The criterion standard was a blinded, reviewer-assigned illness category based on history, physical examination, test results, and treatment. We also modified our respiratory code sets to better identify respiratory illness in this population.

Methods: Four hundred ninety-six charts met inclusion criteria. By the criterion standard, 87 (18%) patients had upper and 47 (10%) had lower respiratory illness. The specificity of CC and diagnostic codes groups was >0.97 [95% confidence interval (CI) 0.95-0.98]. The code group sensitivities were as follows: CC was 0.47 (95% CI 0.38-0.55), upper respiratory diagnostic was 0.56 (95% CI 0.45-0.67), lower respiratory diagnostic was 0.87 (95% CI 0.74-0.95), and combined CC and/or diagnostic was 0.72 (95% CI 0.63-0.79). Modifying the respiratory code sets to better identify respiratory illness increased sensitivity but decreased specificity.

Conclusions: Diagnostic and CC codes have substantial value for emergency department syndromic surveillance. Adapting our respiratory code sets to a pediatric population forced a tradeoff between sensitivity and specificity.

(C) 2004 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.