Exploration of the precision of classifying sudden cardiac death: Implications for the interpretation of clinical trials

Craig Pratt, Patricia S. Greenway, Mark H. Schoenfeld, Mary Lou Hibben, James A. Reiffel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

220 Scopus citations


Background: As cardiovascular clinical trials improve in sophistication and therapies target specific cardiac mechanisms of death, a more objective and precise system to identify specific cause of death is needed. Ideally, sudden cardiac death would describe patients dying of ventricular tachycardia and ventricular fibrillation. In this context, we explored the precision of current sudden death classification and implications for clinical trials. Methods and Result: Deaths were analyzed in 834 patients who received an automatic implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD). Three arrhythmia experts used a standard prospective classification system to classify deaths into accepted categories: sudden cardiac, nonsudden cardiac, and noncardiac. New aspects to this study included analysis of autopsy results and ICD interrogation for arrhythmias at the time of death. All of the patients receiving the ICD previously had documented sustained ventricular tachycardia/fibrillation or cardiac arrest. Of the 109 subsequent deaths in the 834-patient database, 17 (16%) were classified as sudden cardiac. Compared with the nonsudden cardiac and noncardiac categories, sudden cardiac death was more often identified in outpatients (59% versus 10%) and witnessed less often (41% versus 86%; both P<.001). The autopsy information contradicted and changed the clinical perception of a 'sudden cardiac death' in 7 cases (myocardial infarction [n=1], pulmonary embolism [n = 2], cerebral infarction [n = l], ruptured thoracic [n=1], and abdominal aortic aneurysms [n = 2]). Interpretable ICD interrogation was available in 53% of the deaths (47% unavailable: buried, programmed off, or other technical reasons). When evaluated, only 7 of 17 'sudden deaths' were associated with ICD discharges near the time of death. Conclusions: Even in a group of patients with an ICD, deaths classified as sudden cardiac frequently were not associated with ventricular tachycardia or ventricular fibrillation and were often noncardiac. It is possible to create a wide range of sudden cardiac death rates (more than fourfold) using the identical clinical database despite objective, prespecified criteria. Autopsy results frequently reveal noncardiac causes of clinical events simulating sudden cardiac death. ICD interrogation revealed that ICD discharges were often related to terminal arrhythmias incidental to the primary pathophysiological process leading to death.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)519-524
Number of pages6
Issue number3
StatePublished - Feb 1 1996


  • death, sudden
  • implantable cardioverter-defibrillator
  • trials

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Cardiology and Cardiovascular Medicine


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