Airway management is a critical procedure performed frequently in emergency departments (EDs). Previous studies have evaluated the complications associated with this procedure but have focused only on the immediate complications. The purpose of this study is to determine the incidence and nature of delayed complications of tracheal intubation performed in the ED at an academic center where intubations are performed by emergency physicians (EPs).
All tracheal intubations performed in the ED over a one-year period were identified; 540 tracheal intubations were performed during the study period. Of these, 523 charts (96.9%) were available for review and were retrospectively examined. Using a structured datasheet, delayed complications occurring within seven days of intubation were abstracted from the medical record. Charts were scrutinized for the following complications: acute myocardial infarction (MI), stroke, airway trauma from the intubation, and new respiratory infections. An additional 30 consecutive intubations were examined for the same complications in a prospective arm over a 29-day period.
The overall success rate for tracheal intubation in the entire study group was 99.3% (549/553). Three patients who could not be orally intubated underwent emergent cricothyrotomy. Thus, the airway was successfully secured in 99.8% (552/553) of the patients requiring intubation. One patient, a seven-month-old infant, had unanticipated subglottic stenosis and could not be intubated by the emergency medicine attending or the anesthesiology attending. The patient was mask ventilated and was transported to the operating room for an emergent tracheotomy. Thirty-four patients (6.2% [95% CI 4.3 – 8.5%]) developed a new respiratory infection within seven days of intubation. Only 18 patients (3.3% [95% CI 1.9 – 5.1%]) had evidence of a new respiratory infection within 48 hours, indicating possible aspiration pneumonia secondary to airway management. Three patients (0.5% [95% CI 0.1 – 1.6%]) suffered an acute MI, but none appeared to be related to the intubation. One patient was having an acute MI at the time of intubation and the other two patients had MIs more than 24 hours after the intubation. No patient suffered a stroke (0% [95% CI 0 – 0.6%]). No patients suffered any serious airway trauma such as a laryngeal or vocal cord injury.
Emergency tracheal intubation in the ED is associated with an extremely high success rate and a very low rate of delayed complications. Complication rates identified in this study compare favorably to reports of emergency intubations in other hospital settings. Tracheal intubation can safely be performed by trained EPs.