Background Interpretation of ECGs in athletes is complicated by physiological changes related to training. The purpose of this study was to determine the accuracy of ECG interpretation in athletes among different physician specialties, with and without use of a standardized ECG criteria tool. Methods Physicians were asked to interpret 40 ECGs (28 normal ECGs from college athletes randomized with 12 abnormal ECGs from individuals with known cardiovascular pathology) and classify each ECG as (1) ‘normal or variant – no further evaluation and testing needed’ or (2) ‘abnormal – further evaluation and testing needed.’ After reading the ECGs, participants received a two-page ECG criteria tool to guide interpretation of the ECGs again.
Results A total of 60 physicians participated: 22 primary care (PC) residents, 16 PC attending physicians, 12 sports medicine (SM) physicians and 10 cardiologists. At baseline, the total number of ECGs correctly interpreted was PC residents 73%, PC attending 73%, SM physicians 78% and cardiologists 85%. With use of the ECG criteria tool, all physician groups significantly improved their accuracy (p<0.0001): PC residents 92%, PC attending 90%, SM physicians 91% and cardiologists 96%. With use of the ECG criteria tool, specificity improved from 70% to 91%, sensitivity improved from 89% to 94% and there was no difference comparing cardiologists versus all other physicians (p=0.053). Conclusions providing standardized criteria to assist ECG interpretation in athletes significantly improves the ability to accurately distinguish normal from abnormal findings across physician specialties, even in physicians with little or no experience.