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Which diagnostic tests are most useful in a chest pain unit protocol?

Steve Goodacre12*, Thomas Locker12, Jane Arnold12, Karen Angelini1 and Francis Morris1

Author Affiliations

1 Medical Care Research Unit, Regent Court, 30 Regent Street, Sheffield, S1 4DA, UK

2 Emergency Department, Northern General Hospital, Herries Road, Sheffield, S5 7AU, UK

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BMC Emergency Medicine 2005, 5:6  doi:10.1186/1471-227X-5-6

Published: 25 August 2005



The chest pain unit (CPU) provides rapid diagnostic assessment for patients with acute, undifferentiated chest pain, using a combination of electrocardiographic (ECG) recording, biochemical markers and provocative cardiac testing. We aimed to identify which elements of a CPU protocol were most diagnostically and prognostically useful.


The Northern General Hospital CPU uses 2–6 hours of serial ECG / ST segment monitoring, CK-MB(mass) on arrival and at least two hours later, troponin T at least six hours after worst pain and exercise treadmill testing. Data were prospectively collected over an eighteen-month period from patients managed on the CPU. Patients discharged after CPU assessment were invited to attend a follow-up appointment 72 hours later for ECG and troponin T measurement. Hospital records of all patients were reviewed to identify adverse cardiac events over the subsequent six months. Diagnostic accuracy of each test was estimated by calculating sensitivity and specificity for: 1) acute coronary syndrome (ACS) with clinical myocardial infarction and 2) ACS with myocyte necrosis. Prognostic value was estimated by calculating the relative risk of an adverse cardiac event following a positive result.


Of the 706 patients, 30 (4.2%) were diagnosed as ACS with myocardial infarction, 30 (4.2%) as ACS with myocyte necrosis, and 32 (4.5%) suffered an adverse cardiac event. Sensitivities for ACS with myocardial infarction and myocyte necrosis respectively were: serial ECG / ST segment monitoring 33% and 23%; CK-MB(mass) 96% and 63%; troponin T (using 0.03 ng/ml threshold) 96% and 90%. The only test that added useful prognostic information was exercise treadmill testing (relative risk 6 for cardiac death, non-fatal myocardial infarction or arrhythmia over six months).


Serial ECG / ST monitoring, as used in our protocol, adds little diagnostic or prognostic value in patients with a normal or non-diagnostic initial ECG. CK-MB(mass) can rule out ACS with clinical myocardial infarction but not myocyte necrosis(defined as a troponin elevation without myocardial infarction). Using a low threshold for positivity for troponin T improves sensitivity of this test for myocardial infarction and myocardial necrosis. Exercise treadmill testing predicts subsequent adverse cardiac events.