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Acad Emerg Med. 2008 Mar;15(3):239-49. doi: 10.1111/j.1553-2712.2008.00058.x.

Effects of presentation and electrocardiogram on time to treatment of hyperkalemia.

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Department of Surgery, University of Vermont College of Medicine, Burlington, VT, USA.



To assess the time to treatment for emergency department (ED) patients with critical hyperkalemia and to determine whether the timing of treatment was associated with clinical characteristics or electrocardiographic abnormalities.


The authors performed a retrospective chart review of ED patients with the laboratory diagnosis of hyperkalemia (potassium level > 6.0 mmol/L). Patients presenting in cardiac arrest or who were referred for hyperkalemia or dialysis were excluded. Patient charts were reviewed to find whether patients received specific treatment for hyperkalemia and, if so, what clinical attributes were associated with the time to initiation of treatment.


Of 175 ED visits that occurred over a 1-year time period, 168 (96%) received specific treatment for hyperkalemia. The median time from triage to initiation of treatment was 117 minutes (interquartile range [IQR] = 59 to 196 minutes). The 7 cases in which hyperkalemia was not treated include 4 cases in which the patient was discharged home, with a missed diagnosis of hyperkalemia. Despite initiation of specific therapy for hyperkalemia in 168 cases, 2 patients died of cardiac arrhythmias. Among the patients who received treatment, 15% had a documented systolic blood pressure (sBP) < 90 mmHg, and 30% of treated patients were admitted to intensive care units. The median potassium value was 6.5 mmol/L (IQR = 6.3 to 7.1 mmol/L). The predominant complaints were dyspnea (20%) and weakness (19%). Thirty-six percent of patients were taking angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors. Initial electrocardiograms (ECGs) were abnormal in 83% of patient visits, including 24% of ECGs with nonspecific ST abnormalities. Findings of peaked T-wave morphology (34%), first-degree atrioventricular block (17%), and interventricular conduction delay (12%) did not lead to early treatment. Vital sign abnormalities, including hypotension (sBP < 90 mmHg), were not associated with early treatment. The chief complaint of "unresponsive" was most likely to lead to early treatment; treatment delays occurred in patients not transported by ambulance, those with a chief complaint of syncope and those with a history of hypertension.


Recognition of patients with severe hyperkalemia is challenging, and the initiation of appropriate therapy for this disorder is frequently delayed.

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