Send to

Choose Destination
J Psychiatr Pract. 2003 Jan;9(1):16-38.

Treatment of behavioral emergencies: a summary of the expert consensus guidelines.

Author information

University of Colorado School of Medicine, USA.



Behavioral emergencies are a common and serious problem for consumers, their communities, and the healthcare settings on which they rely, but there is little research to guide provider responses to this challenge. Key constructs such as agitation have not been adequately operationalized so that the criteria defining a behavioral emergency are vague. A significant number of deaths of patients in restraint has focused government and regulators on these issues, but a consensus about key elements in the management of behavioral emergencies has not yet been articulated by the provider community. The authors assembled a panel of 50 experts to define the following elements: the threshold for emergency interventions, the scope of assessment for varying levels of urgency and cooperation, guiding principles in selecting interventions, and appropriate physical and medication strategies at different levels of diagnostic confidence and for a variety of etiologies and complicating conditions.


A written survey with 808 decision points was completed by 50 experts. A modified version of the RAND Corporation 9-point scale for rating appropriateness of medical decisions was used to score options. Consensus on each option was defined as a non-random distribution of scores by chi-square "goodness-of-fit" test. We assigned a categorical rank (first line/preferred choice, second line/ alternate choice, third line/usually inappropriate) to each option based on the 95% confidence interval around the mean rating. Guideline tables were constructed describing the preferred strategies in key clinical situations.


The expert panel reached consensus on 83% of the options. The relative appropriateness of emergency interventions was ascertained for a continuum of behaviors. When asked about the frequency with which emergency interventions (parenteral medication, restraint, seclusion) were required in their services, 47% of the experts reported that such interventions were necessary for 1%-5% of patients seen in their services and 32% for 6%-20%. In general, the consensus of this panel lends support to many elements of recent regulations from the Health Care Financing Administration (now the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services), including the timing of clinician assessment and reassessment and the intensity of nursing care. However, the panel did not endorse the concept of "chemical restraint," instead favoring the idea that medications are treatments for target behaviors in behavioral emergencies even when the causes of these behaviors are not well understood. Control of aggressive behavior emerged as the highest priority during the emergency; however, preserving the physician-patient relationship was rated a close second and became the top priority in the long term. Oral medications, particularly concentrates, were clearly preferred if it is possible to use them. Benzodiazepines alone were top rated in 6 of 12 situations. High-potency conventional antipsychotics used alone never received higher ratings than benzodiazepines used alone. A combination of a benzodiazepine and an antipsychotic was preferred for patients with suspected schizophrenia, mania, or psychotic depression. There was equal support for high-potency conventional or atypical antipsychotics (particularly liquids) in oral combinations with benzodiazepines. Droperidol emerged in fourth place in some situations requiring an injection.


To evaluate many of the treatment options in this survey, the experts had to extrapolate beyond controlled data. Within the limits of expert opinion and with the expectation that future research data will take precedence, these guidelines provide some direction for addressing common clinical dilemmas in the management of psychiatric emergencies and can be used to inform clinicians in acute care settings regarding the relative merits of various strategies.

Supplemental Content

Full text links

Icon for Wolters Kluwer
Loading ...
Support Center