Although delirium is well known to acute care clinicians, the features required for its diagnosis and how to understand and operationalize them remain sticking points in the field. To clarify the delirium phenotype, we present a close reading of past and current sets of delirium diagnostic criteria.
We first differentiate the delirium syndrome (i.e., features evaluated at bedside) from additional criteria required for diagnosis. Next, we align related features across diagnostic systems and examine them in context to determine intent. Where criteria are ambiguous, we review common delirium instruments to illustrate how they have been interpreted.
An acute disturbance in attention is universally attested across diagnostic systems. A second core feature denotes confusion and has been included across systems as disturbance in awareness, impaired consciousness, and thought disorganization. This feature may be better understood as a disturbance in thought clarity and operationalized in terms of neuropsychological domains thereby clearly linking it to global neurocognitive disturbance. Altered level of activity describes a third core feature, including motor and sleep/wake cycle disturbances. Excluding stupor (wherein mental content cannot be assessed due to reduced arousal) from delirium, as in DSM-5-TR, is appropriate for a psychiatric diagnosis, but the brain injury exclusion in ICD-11 is unjustified.
The delirium phenotype involves a disturbance in attention, qualitative thought clarity, and quantitative activity level, including in relation to expected sleep/wake cycles. Future diagnostic systems should include a severity threshold and specify that delirium diagnosis refers to a 24-h period.