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Cal J Emerg Med. 2003 Nov-Dec; 4(4): 75–81.
PMCID: PMC2906958

Patients’ vs. Physicians’ Assessments of Emergencies: The Prudent Layperson Standard



To compare perception of the need for emergency care by emergency department (ED) patients vs. emergency physicians (EPs).


Mailed survey to EPs and a convenience sample of ED patients. Survey rated urgency of acute sore throat, ankle injury, abdominal pain, and hemiparesis, as well as the best definition of “emergency.” Responses were compared with chi-square (p < .05).


119/140 (85%) of EPs and 1453 ED patients responded. EPs were more likely to judge acute abdominal pain (79.8% vs. 43.4%, p < 0.001, odds ratio (OR) 5.16, 95% confidence interval (CI) 3.19–8.40) and hemiparesis (100% vs. 82.6%, p < 0.001, OR 24.9, 95% CI 3.75–94.4) as an emergency. Similar proportions of ED patients and EPs considered sore throat (12.2% vs. 7.6%, p = 0.18, OR 0.59, CI 0.27–1.23) and ankle injury (46.9% vs. 38.6%, p = 0.10, OR 0.71, CI 0.48–1.06) an emergency. EPs (35%) and ED patients (40%) agreed to a similar degree with the “prudent layperson” definition, “a condition that may result in death, permanent disability, or severe pain.” (p = .36, OR 1.22, CI 0.81–1.84). EPs were more likely to add, “the condition prevented work,” (27% vs. 16%, p = 0.003, OR 0.51, CI 0.33–0.81). Patients more often added, “occurred outside business hours” (15% vs. 4%, p = 0.002, OR 4.0, CI = 1.5–11.3).


For serious complaints, ED patients’ thresholds for seeking care are higher than judged appropriate by EPs. Stroke is not uniformly recognized as an emergency. Absent consensus for the “correct” threshold, the prudent layperson standard is appropriate.

Keywords: EMTALA, prudent layperson, emergency physician, emergency department

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Articles from The California Journal of Emergency Medicine are provided here courtesy of The University of California, Irvine