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Health Technol Assess. 2019 Aug;23(40):1-194. doi: 10.3310/hta23400.

The 4 'A's test for detecting delirium in acute medical patients: a diagnostic accuracy study.

Author information

Geriatric Medicine, Division of Health Sciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK.
Emergency Medicine, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK.
Health and Social Care, Leeds Institute of Health Sciences, School of Medicine, Faculty of Medicine and Health, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK.
School of Health and Social Care, Edinburgh Napier University, Edinburgh, UK.
Edinburgh Clinical Trials Unit, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK.
Usher Institute of Population Health Sciences and Informatics, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK.
Emergency Medicine Research Group (EMERGE), NHS Lothian, Edinburgh, UK.
Norwich Medical School, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK.
Bradford Institute for Health Research, Bradford Royal Infirmary, Bradford, UK.
Psychiatry, University of York, York.
Hull York Medical School, York, UK.
Bradford District Care NHS Foundation Trust, Bradford, UK.



Delirium is a common and serious neuropsychiatric syndrome, usually triggered by illness or drugs. It remains underdetected. One reason for this is a lack of brief, pragmatic assessment tools. The 4 'A's test (Arousal, Attention, Abbreviated Mental Test - 4, Acute change) (4AT) is a screening tool designed for routine use. This project evaluated its usability, diagnostic accuracy and cost.


Phase 1 - the usability of the 4AT in routine practice was measured with two surveys and two qualitative studies of health-care professionals, and a review of current clinical use of the 4AT as well as its presence in guidelines and reports. Phase 2 - the 4AT's diagnostic accuracy was assessed in newly admitted acute medical patients aged ≥ 70 years. Its performance was compared with that of the Confusion Assessment Method (CAM; a longer screening tool). The performance of individual 4AT test items was related to cognitive status, length of stay, new institutionalisation, mortality at 12 weeks and outcomes. The method used was a prospective, double-blind diagnostic test accuracy study in emergency departments or in acute general medical wards in three UK sites. Each patient underwent a reference standard delirium assessment and was also randomised to receive an assessment with either the 4AT (n = 421) or the CAM (n = 420). A health economics analysis was also conducted.


Phase 1 found evidence that delirium awareness is increasing, but also that there is a need for education on delirium in general and on the 4AT in particular. Most users reported that the 4AT was useful, and it was in widespread use both in the UK and beyond. No changes to the 4AT were considered necessary. Phase 2 involved 785 individuals who had data for analysis; their mean age was 81.4 (standard deviation 6.4) years, 45% were male, 99% were white and 9% had a known dementia diagnosis. The 4AT (n = 392) had an area under the receiver operating characteristic curve of 0.90. A positive 4AT score (> 3) had a specificity of 95% [95% confidence interval (CI) 92% to 97%] and a sensitivity of 76% (95% CI 61% to 87%) for reference standard delirium. The CAM (n = 382) had a specificity of 100% (95% CI 98% to 100%) and a sensitivity of 40% (95% CI 26% to 57%) in the subset of participants whom it was possible to assess using this. Patients with positive 4AT scores had longer lengths of stay (median 5 days, interquartile range 2.0-14.0 days) than did those with negative 4AT scores (median 2 days, interquartile range 1.0-6.0 days), and they had a higher 12-week mortality rate (16.1% and 9.2%, respectively). The estimated 12-week costs of an initial inpatient stay for patients with delirium were more than double the costs of an inpatient stay for patients without delirium (e.g. in Scotland, £7559, 95% CI £7362 to £7755, vs. £4215, 95% CI £4175 to £4254). The estimated cost of false-positive cases was £4653, of false-negative cases was £8956, and of a missed diagnosis was £2067.


Patients were aged ≥ 70 years and were assessed soon after they were admitted, limiting generalisability. The treatment of patients in accordance with reference standard diagnosis limited the ability to assess comparative cost-effectiveness.


These findings support the use of the 4AT as a rapid delirium assessment instrument. The 4AT has acceptable diagnostic accuracy for acute older patients aged > 70 years.


Further research should address the real-world implementation of delirium assessment. The 4AT should be tested in other populations.


Current Controlled Trials ISRCTN53388093.


This project was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Health Technology Assessment programme and will be published in full in Health Technology Assessment; Vol. 23, No. 40. See the NIHR Journals Library website for further project information. The funder specified that any new delirium assessment tool should be compared against the CAM, but had no other role in the study design or conduct of the study.


Delirium is the sudden onset of confusion that can happen when someone is unwell. It is common in older people who go into hospital, and it is upsetting for both the patients and their families. Delirium is important to diagnose, because people with delirium do less well than those without, and it is often treatable. The ideal way to diagnose delirium is with a full assessment by a specialist, but this is expensive and time-consuming. We therefore developed a short test called the 4 ‘A’s Test (4AT). The four ‘A’s stand for Arousal, Attention, Abbreviated Mental Test – 4, and Acute change. First, we interviewed hospital staff about delirium and the 4AT. We found that the 4AT was already widely used and that people found it easy to use. We then tested how the 4AT performed in practice. A total of 785 recently admitted patients aged ≥ 70 years participated, of whom around one in eight had delirium. A researcher carried out the full standard delirium assessment on each patient and then a different researcher carried out the 4AT. A normal 4AT score reliably ruled out delirium. An abnormal score was also reasonably effective in detecting delirium, but staff still needed to follow up such patients with a full assessment. People with higher 4AT scores stayed in hospital longer and were more likely to die, and their treatment was more expensive. We conclude that the 4AT is a useful test to rule out delirium or to see if more detailed testing is required. It could help treat patients correctly and quickly. This would save money and improve outcomes.



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