Responding to ten common delirium misconceptions with best evidence: an educational review for clinicians


Aurora Health Care, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Pubic Health


Delirium (acute confusion) is a serious, common health condition, and it predicts poor outcomes, including greater rates of mortality, institutionalization, prolonged hospitalization, and cognitive impairment. Expedient diagnosis and management are critical to address modifiable delirium causes and improve both quality of care and outcomes. Moreover, more than a third of delirium is preventable. Despite the clear significance of delirium and our increasingly sophisticated understanding of the condition, the gap between evidence and practice persists. The authors provide an educational review of 10 prevalent misconceptions of delirium pertaining to recognition, etiology, natural history, and best management. The authors respond to each with best evidence. Several themes emerge, chief among which is that casual observation is seldom sufficient to detect delirium. Use of open-ended questions, regular neurocognitive testing, and validated delirium screening instruments will aid in accurately identifying cases of delirium. Delirium is typically multifactorial, with several physiological and/or pharmacological contributors. Because of its multidetermined nature and its relationship with cognitive vulnerability, delirium can persist for days to months after acute causes have resolved. Furthermore, patients often have long-term cognitive impairment after delirium rather than returning to their predelirium cognitive baseline. Finally, nonpharmacological management of delirium is first-line, both for prevention and treatment. Psychotropic drugs such as neuroleptics are not recommended for routine use in delirium. They are best reserved for treating dangerous or distressing symptoms, including severe agitation, psychosis, or emotional lability. Challenging these 10 misconceptions stands to improve patient care, quality of life, and clinical outcomes substantially.

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