Diagnosis of Pulmonary Embolism with d-Dimer Adjusted to Clinical Probability

Kearon et al for the PEG-eD study investigators. NEJM 2019; 381:2125-34. DOI:10.1056/NEJMoa1909159

Clinical Question

  • In low and moderate risk patients presenting to the Emergency Department with symptoms suggestive of pulmonary embolism (PE), can a higher d-dimer threshold be used to safely exclude pulmonary embolism without the need for imaging?


  • Diagnostic testing for pulmonary embolism in the Emergency Department (ED) relies on the use of clinical assessment, biomarker levels and diagnostic imaging
  • A d-dimer cut-off of < 500 ng per millilitre is the current default in most hospitals for excluding PEs in low-risk patients
  • Patients with moderate risk pre-test probability are investigated with medical imaging in preference to d-dimer in most institutions
  • Imaging tests (mainly Computerised Tomography Pulmonary Angiography (CTPA)), exposes patients to radiation and the risk of contrast allergy. In addition, performing these tests can increase departmental length of stay
  • Identifying patients suspected of having PE who can be discharged safely without the need for diagnostic imaging is therefore important
  • The ADJUST-PE study from 2014 reported that the use of an adjusted d-dimer based on patient age, could be used to safely exclude PE
  • The YEARS study from 2017 found that a protocol for PE exclusion adjusted for pre-test probability and a d-dimer cut off of < 1000 was safe
  • The recently published European Society of Cardiology (ESC) guidelines for the diagnosis and management of pulmonary embolism recommended considering the use of a d-dimer cut off adapted for clinical probability to exclude PE (class IIa; level B)
  • PEG-eD aimed to investigate whether using a d-dimer cut-off of twice the usual threshold could be safely used to exclude PE. In addition, they also aimed to asses whether d-dimer could be used safely in patients at moderate risk of PE


  • Prospective, multi-centre cohort study
  • Intention to treat analysis
  • Sample size based on an estimate that patients diagnosed with VTE by 90 days was 0.8% if ruled out according to PEG-eD algorithm. 2,000 patients were calculated to provide 90% power to exclude a percentage with venous thromboembolism of 2.0%
  • Pre-test probability of PE determined by the seven-item Wells clinical prediction rule (scores range from 0 to 12.5)
    • Low risk (low clinical pretest probability (CTP)): 0 to 4.0
    • Moderate risk (moderate CTP): 4.5 to 6.0
    • High Risk (high CTP) : ≥ 6.5
    • Further investigation determined by the PEGeD algorithm:
      • Low C-PTP and a d-dimer of < 1,000 ng per millilitre and moderate C-PTP and a d-dimer of < 500 ng per millilitre underwent no further diagnostic testing
  • Study outcomes assessed at 90 days after initial diagnostic testing, by telephone or in clinic


  • University-based clinical centres in Canada
  • December 2015 to May 2018


  • Inclusion: Outpatients with symptoms or signs suggestive of pulmonary embolism
  • Exclusion:
    • Younger than 18 years of age,
    • Received full-dose anticoagulant therapy for 24 hours
    • Major surgery in the past 21 days
    • D-dimer level known before the C-PTP was assessed
    • Chest imaging performed contrary to the protocol
    • Contrast-enhanced CT of the chest performed for another reason
    • An ongoing need for anticoagulant therapy
    • Life expectancy of less than 3 months
    • Pregnant or geographically inaccessible for follow-up
  • 2017 patients included in the final analysis
  • Baseline demographics:
    • mean age of the patients was 52 years
    • 66.2% were female
    • 86.9% of the patients had a low C-PTP, 10.8% had a moderate C-PTP, and 2.3% had a high C-PTP
    • d-Dimer testing was performed predominantly with the STA-Liatest assay (70.9% of the tests)


  • Use of the PEG-eD algorithm in all patients

Management of patients not meeting PEG-eD criteria

  • All other patients, including all patients with a high C-PTP, underwent chest imaging (mainly CTPA)
  • If chest imaging showed pulmonary embolism, patients received anticoagulant therapy; otherwise, patients did not receive anticoagulant therapy


  • Primary outcome: No patients with a low or moderate C-PTP, with a d-dimer level below the predefined threshold, had evidence of symptomatic, objectively verified venous thromboembolism at 90-day follow up
    • 149 out of 2017 (7.4%) of patients were diagnosed with pulmonary embolism
    • Of 1970 patients (97.7% of the total population) who had a low or moderate C-PTP, 1325 (67.3%) had a negative d-dimer test and did not receive anticoagulant therapy
    • None of these patients (95% confidence interval 0.00 to 0.29%) had venous thromboembolism during 90 day follow-up
  • Secondary outcomes: Overall number of patients not diagnosed with VTE who subsequently had evidence of this at follow up:
    • 1 patient (0.05%; 95% CI, 0.01 to 0.30), who had a low C-PTP, a positive d-dimer test (1200 ng per milliliter), and negative findings on CT pulmonary angiography
    • Of the 1,285 patients with a low C-PTP, 315 patients had a D-dimer level of 500 to 999 ng per millilitre. None of these patients had a VTE on follow-up
    • Chest imaging reduced from 51.9% to 34.3% with PEG-eD algorithm (difference -17.6; 95% CI -19.2 to -15.9)
    • There were 7 major bleeding episodes, 23 minor bleeding episodes, and 34 deaths during follow-up
    • 34 deaths occurred during follow-up, none of which were deemed to be attributable to pulmonary embolism


Authors’ Conclusions

  • Ruling out PE in patients with a low C-PTP who have a d-dimer level of less than 1000 ng per milliliter is a low-risk strategy. This strategy is also appropriate for excluding pulmonary embolism in patients with a moderate C-PTP who have a d-dimer level of less than 500 ng per millilitre


  • Addresses a common Emergency Department presentation and clinical dilemma
  • Power calculation performed for the precision of the estimate
  • The investigators used an internationally recognised and well-validated scoring system (Wells)
  • Results consistent with prior studies in this area
  • 90-day follow-up appropriate to ensure all (or most) VTEs were captured
  • Intention to treat analysis used
  • Canadian setting means that results are likely to have reasonable external validity in the USA, Europe and Australia
  • All outcome events were evaluated with the use of predefined criteria by a central adjudication committee who were blinded to the results of diagnostic testing


  • The overall PE rate was less than would be expected in an Emergency Department setting, and lower than that seen in the ADJUST-PE and YEARS studies, suggesting that the threshold for the investigation of PE was lower in this study
  • In addition, only 13% of patients were moderate or high-risk for PE
  • The 7.4% PE rate is however similar to that of other North American populations
  • Most diagnostic work-ups for PE would include use of the PERC rule. In a low-risk patient, a negative PERC score would obviate the need for d-dimer
  • Only 40 patients were moderate risk CTP with a negative d-dimer, so no firm conclusions can be drawn from this group
  • This was an observational study, and may be subject to selection bias and convenience sampling
  • There was a discrepancy in numbers between figure 1 and table 1
  • As this was a cohort study, there was no direct comparison group of usual practice
  • Although 2017 patients were included in the study, only 315 patients were directly relevant to answering the question of whether a higher d-dimer threshold can be safely used in low-risk patients. It is unclear how many of this group could have been excluded on the basis of Wells and PERC score alone

The Bottom Line

  • Using a d-dimer cut off adjusted for clinical probability appears to be a safe strategy to reduce the use of diagnostic imaging in low-risk patients with PE
  • This approach should be adopted by Emergency Departments in the work-up of patients suspected of having pulmonary embolism

External Links


Summary author: Fraser Magee
Summary date: 19th December 2019
Peer-review editor: Steve Mathieu

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