Appropriateness of endotracheal tube size and insertion depth in children undergoing air medical transport

Pediatr Emerg Care. 2000 Oct;16(5):321-7. doi: 10.1097/00006565-200010000-00004.


Objectives: Guidelines for pediatric endotracheal tube (ETT) size and insertion depth are important in the helicopter EMS (HEMS) setting, where intubated patients are frequently transported by a non-physician flight crew providing protocol-based care in an environment noted for limitations in clinical airway assessment. The objectives of this study were to characterize, in a HEMS pediatric population, the frequency of compliance with guideline-recommended ETT size and insertion depth, and to test for association between guideline noncompliance and subsequent receiving hospital adjustment of ETT size or insertion depth.

Design: This retrospective review analyzed 216 consecutive pediatric (age <14) scene and interfacility HEMS transports, of patients intubated before or during HEMS transport, by an urban two-helicopter HEMS service providing protocol-based care with a nurse/paramedic crew configuration. Patients were transported to one of three receiving academic pediatric referral centers. Pediatric Advanced Life Support (PALS) criteria for ETT size and insertion depth were used to assess guideline-appropriateness of pediatric ETTs. Receiving hospital records were reviewed to determine if post-transport ETT size or lipline adjustment were associated with guideline-appropriateness of size and lipline during HEMS transport. Univariate (chi-square and Fisher's exact) and multivariate (logistic regression) statistics were used to assess and control for the following covariates: intubator group (physician, flight crew, ground EMS), transport year, sex, age, transport type (scene versus interfacility), and receiving hospital. For all analyses, statistical significance was set at the 0.05 level.

Results: The initial ETT size was within 0.5 mm of guideline-recommended sizes in 178 (83.6%) of the 213 patients for whom this data were available. Inappropriate sized ETTs were nearly always (32 of 35, 91.4%) too small. Compared to initial ETTs placed by ground EMS personnel, initial ETTs placed by flight crew or physicians were more likely to be appropriate as defined by guidelines (P = .008 and .032, respectively). Receiving hospitals changed the ETT size in 18 (8.3% of 216) cases. Receiving hospital ETT size change was more likely with later transport year (P = .018) and less likely in patients over 2 years of age (P = .03); there was no significant association between receiving hospital ETT size change and intubator group (P > .22) or guideline-appropriateness of ETT size (P = 0.94). The initial ETT insertion depth was within 1 cm of the guideline-recommended lipline in 86 (43.2%) of the 199 patients for whom this data were available. Inappropriate liplines were almost always (109 of 113, 96.5%) too deep. Compared to initial ETT liplines determined by ground EMS personnel, initial liplines determined by flight crew (P = .007), but not physician (P = .47) were more likely to be appropriate as defined by guidelines. Receiving hospitals changed the ETT insertion depth in 72 (33.3% of 216) cases. Receiving hospital lipline change was more likely (P = .03) in patients older than 2 years of age, but was not associated with intubator group (P = .75) or lipline guideline-appropriateness (P = .35).

Conclusions: As judged by frequently used guidelines, pediatric ETTs are often too small and commonly inserted too deep. However, this retrospective study, limited by lack of clinical correlation for ETT size and insertion depth, failed to find an association between lack of ETT size or lipline guideline compliance and subsequent ETT adjustment at receiving pediatric centers. This study's findings, which should be confirmed with prospective investigation, cast doubt upon the utility of pediatric ETT size/lipline guidelines as strict clinical or quality assurance tools for use in pediatric airway management.

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Air Ambulances*
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Chi-Square Distribution
  • Child, Preschool
  • Clinical Protocols
  • Emergency Medical Services / methods
  • Female
  • Guideline Adherence / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Intubation, Intratracheal / instrumentation*
  • Intubation, Intratracheal / methods*
  • Intubation, Intratracheal / standards
  • Logistic Models
  • Male
  • Pediatrics / instrumentation
  • Pediatrics / methods
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Transportation of Patients*