Red Flags

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  • The term ‘red flag’ is a particular feature which suggests a potentially serious or life-threatening condition
  • It can be applied to both diagnosed conditions e.g. Rising pCO in acute asthma or when the problem is not yet clear e.g. Fever in Back Pain
  • Red flags should act as warnings to take a more careful assessment to exclude serious conditions or complications.  In cognitive science this step is described as ‘toggling’ from rapid, intuitive thinking to slow, rational thinking.
  • The failure to toggle or recognise red flags may be a factor that contributes to medical error particularly in junior doctors

Examples of red flags

  • A threat to ABCDE e.g. stridor, shallow breathing, pallor
  • Clues to a serious pathological process: Ischaemia – abrupt pain or symptoms, infection – fever, raised inflammatory markers
  • Evidence of serious organ dysfunction e.g. Respiratory: dyspnoea at rest, Liver: hypoglycaemia
  • Risk factors for serious pathology  Immunocompromise and Infection, Mental illness and intentional or inadvertant poisoning

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