Study: How Doctors Can Quickly Identify the Sickest Patients in the ER

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Emergency-room doctors could have a new weapon in their assessment arsenal if the results of preliminary research published in Emergency Medicine Journal hold up under further review. And it all comes down to making faces.




In the study, researchers assessed how patients in the emergency room responded facially to emotional cues by recording them on a webcam. They found that those with severe cardiopulmonary disease were significantly less able to respond to those cues—a funny cartoon, a close-up of a surprised face, and a photo of someone crying—with a normal range of facial expressions. In particular, the severely ill patients were unable to register surprise. The authors of the study write, “We believe that due to the gravity of their illness, [these] patients may not have been able to process and respond to an emotional stimulus in the way that would be expected of most people under normal conditions.”

The goal of the study, the authors write, is to provide a screening tool to help weed out the less seriously ill, to avoid unnecessary and costly tests like CTs. It could also help physicians consulting with patients via Skype to assess their condition.

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