Original Research

Getting the hypertension Dx right: Patient positioning matters

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Taking blood pressure with the patient seated on the edge of an exam table led to misclassification of prehypertension or hypertension in 13.2% of patients.




PurposeThis study evaluated the effect of patient positioning on the diagnosis of hypertension in a clinic setting and the importance of following guidelines for measuring blood pressure (BP).

Methods In the trial part of this study, we recorded BP measurements by an aneroid sphygmomanometer with patients seated first on an examination table, a commonly observed practice, and second in the standard seated position as defined by the American Heart Association. Two measurements were obtained in each position for 204 patients, and we determined the difference between the average readings in the 2 positions. Factored into the comparison was an estimation of inherent variance of the device and observer achieved by repeated measurements on a healthy individual.

Results This investigation included an initial observational study of 25 regional primary care offices, the results of which showed frequent lack of adherence with accepted guidelines in patient positioning during BP measurement. The overall systolic and diastolic BPs were more than 2 mm Hg lower in the standard seated position compared with the examination table position (P<.001). Noncompliance with the position guideline resulted in misclassification of 15 patients (7.4%) as prehypertensive, when, in fact, they were normotensive. Misclassification of hypertension occurred in 12 patients (5.9%), when, in fact, they were normotensive. Logistic regression using relevant clinical factors did not identify those individuals who were misclassified.

Conclusion This study underscores the importance of patient positioning on BP determinations in order to accurately diagnose hypertension.

The high prevalence of hypertension and its burden of disease in the United States and worldwide are well known.1 Hypertension is a major risk factor for coronary heart disease, congestive heart failure, ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke, chronic kidney disease, and peripheral arterial disease.2 Among all risk factors, hypertension ranked first worldwide in disability-adjusted life-years.3 However, misclassification of an individual’s blood pressure (BP) as prehypertension or hypertension also confers significant health and financial burdens due to unnecessary medical encounters, testing, and treatment, and to increased cost of insurance coverage and out-of-pocket expenses. A correct assessment of BP in the outpatient setting depends on accurate measurement technique.

The diagnosis of hypertension is based on indirect measurement of BP using in-office, ambulatory, or home monitoring. Although office BP measurement is less than ideal, it is used most often to diagnose and monitor hypertension. Furthermore, most published trials of treatment recommendations are based on office BP measurements.4

Automated oscillometric and aneroid sphygmomanometers are common BP measurement devices. Proper technique is particularly important with the aneroid sphygmomanometer to obtain consistent and accurate results.5 Good training and an ability to hear the Korotkoff sounds are crucial.

Only 10 of 25 offices we visited in our area measured BP with patients properly seated in a chair. Most had their patients sit on the edge of the examination table.

Expert consensus groups such as the American Heart Association (AHA) publish recommendations for proper technique in reliably measuring BP,6-8 and they emphasize the importance of patient positioning during BP measurement. The individual should be seated comfortably in a chair with both arms and back supported, legs uncrossed, and feet flat on the floor. We’ll refer to this as the “standard position.” Although the proper technique for measuring BP has been widely advocated, a recent literature review for the US Preventive Services Task Force concluded that surprisingly few studies are available on the diagnostic accuracy of office BP practices.9

One paper evaluated the effect of leg crossing on accuracy of BP measurement. No subjects were reclassified as hypertensive, but the study lacked statistical rigor.10 Another study found variable BP readings regardless of body position.11

The purpose of our study was to compare BP measurement in 2 positions: the standard position described above, and the examination table position in which the patient is seated on the edge of the table with back, arms, and feet unsupported.


We conducted our literature search across several scientific and medical literature databases, including PubMed, ScienceDirect, and CINAHL. Only English-language articles were reviewed.

We followed the BP measurement guidelines of the AHA. Prior to beginning the study, we provided instructions in proper BP measurement technique to the nurses who would obtain the data. The minimum sample size of patients needed to identify a difference of at least 2 mm Hg was 26, as estimated by power analysis. This was calculated using an alpha of .05 and a beta of .13.

The study population consisted of patients presenting consecutively to a teaching family medicine center. Adult patients, ages 18 and older, were informed about the study and invited to participate. Those who agreed were asked to read and sign an informed consent approved by a regional institutional review board for human subjects. We excluded patients who declined participation for any reason, who were in severe pain or distress that may have prevented them from completing the protocol, or who had limited mobility that could interfere with climbing onto the examination table. Patients considered for the study totaled 250, 28 of whom were ineligible. Another 18 patients declined participation, leaving 204 who completed the protocol.

Before testing began, we estimated the standard deviation of each aneroid sphygmomanometer and the assigned observer by repeatedly measuring the BP of a healthy normotensive individual sitting in the standard position. We obtained 46 measurements over 2 days to avoid subject and operator fatigue. Standard deviation for systolic BP was 3.6 mm Hg; for diastolic it was 3.8 mm Hg.

During testing, nurses recorded BP for each patient twice in the examination table position and twice in the standard position. They entered data into an Excel workbook for subsequent analysis. All examination rooms were equipped with newly purchased aneroid sphygmomanometers, and the appropriate cuff size was selected for each patient. Patients were instructed to remain quiet during the measurements. Patients sat first on the edge of the examination table. After a 5-minute rest, BP was measured twice in the same arm. Measurements were separated by 1 to 2 minutes. Patients then sat in the chair and rested another 2 minutes before BP was again measured twice in the same arm. The arms and back were supported in the chair and the stethoscope placed at heart level.

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