Introduction: Tracheotomy for long-term ventilation is a common surgical procedure in the hospital setting. Although the postoperative care is often perceived as routine, complications associated with tracheostomy changes may result in loss of airway and death. In addition, the practice patterns, rationale, and complications related to tube changes have been poorly described.
Study design and methods: A survey of chief residents in accredited otolaryngology training programs was performed to determine the management strategies, rationale, and complications associated with postoperative tracheostomy tube changes.
Results: The first tube change was performed after a mean of 5.3 (range, 3-7) days after the procedure, most frequently by junior residents. The first change was performed in a variety of locations including the intensive care unit (88%), step down unit (80%), and regular floor (78%). Twenty-five percent performed these changes at night or on weekends. The most frequently reported rationale for performing routine tracheotomy changes was examination of the stoma for maturity (46%), prevention of stomal infection (46%), and confirmation of stability for transport to a less monitored setting (41%). Twenty-five (42%) respondents reported awareness of a loss of airway, and nine (15%) respondents reported awareness of a death as a result of the first tube change at their institution during their residency. A statistically significant higher incidence of airway loss was reported by respondents who reported performing the first tube change on the floor (96.1% vs. 63.6%).
Conclusion: There is significant variability in the approach to postoperative tracheostomy tube management. The occurrence of major complications including deaths from routine tube changes requires an examination of the rationale and safety of this practice.