Chest Tube Repositioning – Final Answer

So you’re faced with a chest tube that “someone else” inserted, and the followup chest xray shows that the last drain hole is outside the chest. What to do?

Well, as I mentioned, there is very little written on this topic, just dogma. So here are some practical tips on avoiding or fixing this problem:

  • Don’t let it happen to you! When inserting the tube, make sure that it’s done right! I don’t recommend making large skin incisions just to inspect your work. Most tubes can be inserted through a 2cm incision, but you can’t see into the depths of the wound. There are two tricks:
    • In adults with a reasonable BMI, the last hole is in when the tube markings show 12cm (bigger people need bigger numbers, though)
    • After insertion, get into the habit of running a finger down the radiopaque stripe on the tube all the way to the chest wall. If you don’t feel a hole (which is punched through the stripe), this will confirm that the it is inside, and that the tube actually goes into the chest. You may laugh, but I’ve seen them placed under the scapula. This even looks normal on chest xray!
  • Patients with a high BMI may not need anything done. The soft tissue will probably keep the hole occluded. If there is no air leak, just watch it.
  • If the tube was just put in and the wound has just been prepped and dressed, and the hole is barely outside the rib line, you might consider repositioning it a centimeter or two. Infection is a real concern, so if in doubt, go to the next step.
  • Replace the tube, using a new site. Yes, it’s a nuisance and requires more anesthetic and possibly sedation, but it’s better than treating an empyema in a few days.

Related posts:

Chest Tube Repositioning – Part 2

Yesterday I presented the problem of the malpositioned chest tube, specifically one that is not completely in the pleural space. This one is way out:

So what do the doctor books say? Well, the first thing you will discover if you try to look it up is that THERE IS NO LITERATURE ON THIS COMMON PROBLEM! There are a few papers on tubes placed in the fissure and tubes inserted into the lung parenchyma. But there are only a few mentions of tubes with holes still outside the chest.

I’ve gotten a number of comments, including “you can push them in a little”, “take it out and put in another”, and “never push them in.” Since we don’t have any science to guide us, we have to use common sense. But remember, I’ve shown you plenty of examples where something seems reasonable, but turns out to be ineffective or downright harmful.

There are three principles that guide me when I face this problem:

  • Prevention is preferable to intervention
  • Do no (or as little as possible) further harm
  • Be creative

Tomorrow, I’ll finish this series and provide some tips and guidelines to help manage this problem using the principles outlined above.

What To Do When The Chest Tube Is Not In The Right Place

It happens from time to time. Your patient has a hemothorax or pneumothorax and you insert a chest tube. Well done! But then the xray comes back:

The last hole in the drain is outside the chest! What to do???

Here are the questions that need to be answered:

  • Pull it out, leave it, or push it in?
  • Does length of time the tube has been in make a difference?
  • Does BMI matter?

Leave comments below regarding what you do. Hints and final answers next!

When Should You Activate Your Backup Trauma Surgeon?

The American College of Surgeons requires all US Trauma Centers to publish a call schedule that includes a backup trauma surgeon. This is important for several reasons:

  • It maintains a high level of care when the on-call surgeon is encumbered with multiple critical patients, or has other on-call responsibilities such as acute care surgery
  • It reduces the need to place the entire trauma center on divert due to surgeon issues

However, the ACS does not provide any guidance regarding the criteria for and logistics of mobilizing the backup surgeon. In my mind, the guiding principle is a simple one:

The backup should be called any time a patient is occupying the on-call surgeon’s time to the extent that they cannot manage the care of a newly arrived (or expected to arrive) patient with critical needs that only the surgeon can provide.

There’s a lot of meat in that sentence, so let’s go over it in detail. 

First, the on-call surgeon must already be busy. This means that they are actively managing one or more patients. Depending on the structure of the call system, they may be involved with trauma patients, general/acute care surgery patients, ICU patients, or a combination thereof. Busy means tied up to the point that they cannot meaningfully manage another patient.

Note that I did not say “evaluate another patient.” Frequently, it is possible to have a resident (at an appropriate training level) or advanced practice provider (APP) see the new patient while the surgeon is tied up, say in the operating room. They can report back, and the surgeon can then weigh his or her choices regarding the level of management that will be needed. Or if operating with a chief resident, it may be possible for the surgeon to briefly leave the OR to see the second patient or quickly check in on the trauma resuscitation. Remember, our emergency medicine colleagues can easily run a trauma activation and provide initial care for major trauma patients. They just can’t operate on them.

What if the surgeon is in the OR? Should they call the backup every time they are doing a case at night? Or every time a trauma activation is called while they are doing one? In my opinion, no. The chance of having a highest level trauma activation called is not that high, and as above, the surgeon, resident, or APP may be able to assess how much attention the new patient is likely to need. But recognize that the surgeon may not meet the 15 minute trauma activation attendance requirement set forth by the ACS.

However, once such a patient does arrive (or there is notification that one of these patients is on the way), call in the backup surgeon. These would include patients that are known to, or are highly suspected of needing immediate operative management. Good examples are penetrating injuries to the torso with hemodynamic problems, or those with known uncontrolled bleeding (e.g. mangled extremity).

If two or more patients are being managed by the surgeon, and they believe that they would not be able to manage another, it’s a good idea to notify the backup that they may be needed. This lets them plan their evening better to ensure rapid availability.

Finally, what is the expected time for the backup to respond and arrive at the hospital to help? There is no firm guideline, but remember, your partner and the patient are asking for your assistance! In my opinion, total time should be no more than 30 minutes. If it takes longer, then the trauma program should look at its backup structure and come up with a way to meet this time frame.

The 30-Minute Rules: Documentation

In my last post, I reviewed timing for the 30-minute rules. When does the 30-minute timer actually start? When does it stop? Now that you understand those concepts, we can move on to actually documenting those times.

As I noted yesterday, the timer starts when the consultant is called or paged. It should be easy to record this, right? Nope. The problem is that a whole host of people can do this:

  • ED clerk
  • Trauma nurse
  • Attending surgeon
  • Resident
  • Medical student (nooooo)
  • And probably more

This makes it more difficult to find a common place to record the call time. The two possibilities are paper or electronic. The paper trauma flow sheet is usually only available to the trauma nurse. The others will either use a random piece of paper that gets lost, or doesn’t record it at all.

The other option is the electronic medical record (EMR). Everyone involved with the resuscitation probably has access to it. What’s the best option? This depends on your hospital. For paper, develop a process such that one person who has access to the trauma flow sheet (usually the nurse) is responsible for entering the call time. Otherwise, develop a specific template in your EMR so that whoever enters it does it the same way. And make sure that everyone who could possibly write the call time note knows how to properly create it.

Now, what about documenting consultant arrival? This is the most difficult part of the process. Once again, there are two alternatives: human factors or technology. Many programs try to rely on technology. Unfortunately, it is frequently flawed. The EMR timestamp when the consult is entered always  occurs after the patient was seen. Badge swipes can be forgotten. The most reliable method relies on personal responsibility. Your consultant must take a moment to check the time when he or she enters the room to examine the patient. They can then record that time when they write their note. And if they really want to be cool, they can also note the time they were called in the note.

Best practice: Have the trauma attending personally make the call to the specialist. And in that conversation, have them mention that “this is a 30–minute criterion consult.” This ensures that both your surgeon and consultant know that their presence is expected promptly. And maintain an expectation that the consultant will properly document their arrival time.

I hope you enjoyed this series. If you have any comments or questions, or want to share tips from your program, please leave a comment below or shout it out on Twitter.

Home of the Trauma Professional's Blog

Do you want to get a daily email every time there’s a new post? See what I’m up to.

Click here to get details and subscribe!

Request a Topic

Subscribe now to the Trauma MedEd Newsletter and get a free copy of my guide, "How To Keep Up With Your Literature"!