Background: Patients with indwelling chest tubes inserted for the purpose of evacuating pleural air traditionally are treated in the hospital. The current emphasis on cost-effective medical care and a recent report describing the early discharge of patients who had undergone lung volume reduction operations and had a persistent air leak prompted us to review our overall experience with outpatient tubes in a general thoracic surgical practice.
Methods: We reviewed the records of patients who had been discharged from the hospital with chest tubes and Heimlich valves in place for venting pleural air over the past 7 years. Ambulatory tube management was used on a total of 240 occasions in three diagnostic groups: pneumothorax (176 cases), prolonged postresection air leak (45 cases), and outpatient thoracoscopic pulmonary wedge excision (19 cases). Failure was defined as hospital admission for complications of tube insertion or function.
Results: There were 10 failures in the entire group (4.2%), 4.5% for pneumothorax, 2% for postresection air leak, and 5.3% for outpatient thoracoscopy. There were no deaths or instances of life-threatening problems. The cost of at least 1,263 inpatient hospital days was saved.
Conclusions: The presence of a chest tube, with or without an air leak, does not always require hospitalization. Admission can be avoided in most patients with primary spontaneous pneumothorax and in selected patients with pneumothorax of other causes. The postoperative hospital stay can be shortened for many patients who have a prolonged air leak after pulmonary resection. Ambulatory tube management also makes feasible outpatient thoracoscopy for noneffusive processes.