Risk factors for the misdiagnosis of pneumothorax in the intensive care unit

Crit Care Med. 1991 Jul;19(7):906-10. doi: 10.1097/00003246-199107000-00014.


Objective: To identify risk factors predisposing to the misdiagnosis of pneumothorax in the ICU.

Design: A prospective case series investigation.

Setting: A medical ICU service of a military referral hospital.

Patients: All adult medical ICU patients were evaluated during a 12-month period. Of 464 admissions, 28 (6%) were found to have acquired a pneumothorax during their medical ICU stay.

Interventions: Nineteen (67.9%) patients with pneumothorax were diagnosed correctly on initial presentation of their pneumothorax. The remaining nine (32.1%) patients' pneumothoraces were misdiagnosed at initial presentation.

Measurements and main results: Tension pneumothorax occurred more frequently in patients with an initially misdiagnosed pneumothorax (33.3%) than in patients with pneumothoraces that were correctly diagnosed during their medical ICU stay (5.3%) (p less than .06). Thirteen variables chosen prospectively were examined using a chi-square statistic. The following four variables occurred statistically more often in nine patients with an initially misdiagnosed pneumothorax: a) mechanical ventilation required at the time of the development of pneumothorax (p less than .05); b) an atypical radiographic location of the pneumothorax (p less than .05); c) altered mental status exhibited at the time of pneumothorax presentation (p less than .05); and d) development of pneumothorax after peak physician staffing hours (p less than .02).

Conclusions: Certain medical ICU patients appear to be at higher risk for the initial misdiagnosis of pneumothorax. Familiarity with factors predisposing to this problem should allow for a higher index of suspicion for the diagnosis of pneumothorax in critically ill patients and possibly improve the early detection of pneumothorax.

MeSH terms

  • Causality
  • Diagnostic Errors
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Intensive Care Units*
  • Male
  • Medical Staff, Hospital / supply & distribution
  • Middle Aged
  • Orientation
  • Pneumothorax / diagnosis*
  • Pneumothorax / diagnostic imaging
  • Pneumothorax / epidemiology
  • Prospective Studies
  • Radiography
  • Respiration, Artificial / adverse effects