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Abstract Introduction Delirium is associated with a wide range of adverse patient safety outcomes, yet it remains consistently under-diagnosed. We undertook a systematic review of studies describing delirium in adult medical patients in secondary care. We investigated if changes in healthcare complexity were associated with trends in reported delirium over the last four decades. Methods We used identical criteria to a previous systematic review, only including studies using internationally accepted diagnostic criteria for delirium (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and the International Statistical Classification of Diseases). Estimates were pooled across studies using random effects meta-analysis, and we estimated temporal changes using meta-regression. We investigated publication bias with funnel plots. Results We identified 15 further studies to add to 18 studies from the original review. Overall delirium occurrence was 23% (95% CI 19–26%) (33 studies) though this varied according to diagnostic criteria used (highest in DSM-IV, lowest in DSM-5). There was no change from 1980 to 2019, nor was case-mix (average age of sample, proportion with dementia) different. Overall, risk of bias was moderate or low, though there was evidence of increasing publication bias over time. Discussion The incidence and prevalence of delirium in hospitals appears to be stable, though publication bias may have masked true changes. Nonetheless, delirium remains a challenging and urgent priority for clinical diagnosis and care pathways.

Original publication




Journal article


Age and Ageing


Oxford University Press (OUP)

Publication Date





352 - 360