Point-of-Care Ultrasonography for Evaluation of Acute Dyspnea in the ED


Dyspnea is a common presenting symptom in the emergency department, and early diagnosis of underlying disease pathology is crucial in rapid intervention and treatment. Laboratory and radiological tests aid in the diagnosis, but often these results take time.1-3 Additionally, chest radiographs and chest CTs, the most common radiological tests in the evaluation of dyspnea, have several disadvantages including radiation risks and high costs. Unlike these modalities, point-of-care ultrasound (PoCUS) is cheap with no radiation risk, highly accurate, and has better sensitivity in detecting pneumothorax, pneumonia, and pleural effusions than CXR.4-7 In addition to being accurate and reliable, PoCUS can be performed rapidly to aid in early diagnosis and treatment of patients.

Point-of-Care Ultrasonography for Evaluation of Acute Dyspnea in the ED

Clinical Question

What is the feasibility and diagnostic accuracy of PoCUS for the management of acute dyspnea in the ED?

Methods & Study Design

  • Design:

Prospective, blinded, observational study

  • Population:

This study was conducted at Careggi University Hospital, a university-affiliated teaching hospital.

  • Inclusion Criteria:

Patients over the age of 18 with acute dyspnea of any degree. 

  • Exclusion Criteria:

Patients with dyspnea of traumatic origin, and those that were discharged from the emergency department after evaluation. 

  • Intervention:

All patients were primarily assessed by 2 separate emergency physicians with vital signs, history, physical exam, and EKG.

One physician performed a Lung, Cardiac, and IVC PoCUS.

One physician performed a standard workup using any combination of Chest X-Ray, Chest CT, Echocardiogram, labs, or Arterial Blood Gas.

Both physicians were asked to make up to 2 diagnoses based on their results.

Possible diagnoses: Heart Failure, Acute Coronary Syndrome, Pneumonia, Pleural Effusion, Pericardial Effusion, COPD/asthma, Pulmonary Embolism, Pneumothorax, ARDS/ALI, Other.

  • Outcomes


Accuracy of diagnosis:

Follow-up chart review determined the reference diagnosis. Results were compared to the diagnosis obtained from the ultrasound group and the standard workup group.


Time to final diagnosis for both groups was recorded.

Time for Ultrasound completion was recorded.


3,487 total patients → 2,683 included in study

Average time to complete US: 7±2 min

Average time to Diagnosis:

Ultrasound: 24 ± 10 minutes

ED: 186 ± 72 minutes

Variable Sensitivity - Ultrasound Sensitivity - Standard
Heart Failure 88 (85.1-90.6) 77.3 (73.7 – 80.6)
COPD/asthma 86.6 (84.2-89.2) 92.2 (90.1-94)
Pulmonary Embolism 40 (30.1-50.6) 90.5 (82.8-95.6)
  • Point-of-care ultrasound had an increased sensitivity in detecting heart failure compared to standard workup.
  • Point-of-care ultrasound had a decreased sensitivity in diagnosing COPD/asthma and pulmonary embolism compared to standard workup.

There were no differences in the sensitivity or specificity of ultrasound vs. standard workup in all other diagnoses.

Strength & Limitations


Adequate sample size obtained for most diagnoses.

Gold standard diagnosis was reviewed by two separate emergency medicine physicians.


Ultrasound sonographers focused only on those patients with dyspnea, while the treating physicians were responsible for other patients in the ED.

This likely increased the time to diagnosis for emergency physicians in the standard workup group.

Patients discharged from the hospital were not included in study.

Average age of patient population was 71, but patients 18 and over were accepted.

ARDS patient studies were underpowered.

Authors Conclusion

“Integrated ultrasound methods could replace the current first diagnostic approach to patients presenting with dyspnea, allowing a drastic reduction in costs and diagnostic times.”

Our Conclusion

Point-of-Care Ultrasound in patients with dyspnea provides us with quick information to begin treatment before other laboratory and radiological tests become available. While this study showed that ultrasound was superior to the standard workup in detecting heart failure, it was slightly inferior to the standard workup in detecting COPD/asthma, and significantly inferior to standard workup in detecting pulmonary embolism. The authors speculated that with the inclusion of a DVT ultrasound study would improve the sensitivity for detecting PEs greatly.  

There have been other studies demonstrating increased sensitivity using ultrasound in patients to diagnose pneumonia and pleural effusions compared to chest x-ray. This study contributed to our knowledge of the accuracy of ultrasound in undifferentiated dyspnea by demonstrating its accuracy in these other important diagnoses. The study shows that PoCUS can guide and the emergency physician’s workup, help risk-stratify, can help us to begin treatment quickly, and improveflow and efficiency in the ED. 

The Bottom Line

Although PoCUS won’t replace a standard workup in many cases, PoCUS can rapidly and accurately aid in determining the underlying diagnosis in patients presenting to the ED with undifferentiated dyspnea and may lead to quicker treatment times and improved flow in the emergency department. 


This post was written by Marissa Wolfe, MS4 at Stony Brook University. Review and further commentary was provided by Amir Aminlari, MD, Ultrasound Faculty at UCSD.


  1. Mulrow CD, Lucey CR, Farnett LE. Discriminating causes of dyspnea through clinical examination. J Gen Intern Med. 1993;8(7):383-392. 
  2. Schmitt BP, Kushner MS, Wiener SL. The diagnostic usefulness of the history of the patient with dyspnea. J Gen Intern Med. 1986;1(6):386-393. 
  3. Nielsen LS, Svanegaard J, Wiggers P, Egeblad H. The yield of a diagnostic hospital dyspnoea clinic for the primary health care section. J Intern Med. 2001;250(5):422-428. 
  4. Lichtenstein D, Mezière G. Relevance of lung ultrasound in the diagnosis of acute respiratory failure: the BLUE protocol. Chest. 2008;134(1):117-125. 
  5. Reissig A, Copetti R, Mathis G, et al. Lung ultrasound in the diagnosis and follow-up of community-acquired pneumonia: a prospective, multicenter, diagnostic accuracy study. Chest. 2012;142(4): 965-972. 
  6. Zanobetti M, Poggioni C, Pini R. Can chest ultrasonography replace standard chest radiography for evaluation of acute dyspnea in the ED? Chest. 2011;139(5): 1140-1147. 
  7. Nazerian P, Volpicelli G, Vanni S, et al. Accuracy of lung ultrasound for the diagnosis of consolidations when compared to chest computed tomography. Am J Emerg Med. 2015;33(5):620-625. 

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