Effect on the duration of mechanical ventilation of identifying patients capable of breathing spontaneously

Authors: Ely E, Baker A, Dunagan D, Burke H, Smith A, et al.
Source: New England Journal of Medicine. 335:1864-9. December 19, 1996.
Institution: Bowman Gray School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, NC.
Financial support: None indicated.



The best approach to discontinuing mechanical ventilation in intubated patients has not been definitively determined. This randomized study was designed to examine a particular protocol designed to expedite the discontinuation of mechanical ventilation. The patients were screened to determine when they might be ready for extubation. Then, if indicated by screening, the patient underwent a trial of unassisted ventilation. If a patient successfully completed that trial, the responsible physician was notified.



Authors' Discussion

The authors conclude that respiratory screening followed by a trial of unassisted ventilation produced better results than traditional "weaning" from the respirator. They note that one previous trial of unassisted ventilation produced similar results, whereas another one found pressure-support ventilation to be superior to unassisted ventilation and intermittent mandatory ventilation. Despite the earlier extubation in the intervention group, re-intubation was less frequent in this group. Finally, they stress the important role of non-physician health professionals in the care of these patients.


In an accompanying editorial, John M. Luce from San Francisco General Hospital points out that mechanical ventilation is an effective technique, but comes at a price. In order to reduce the reliance on mechanical ventilation, we need to fully exploit non-invasive face-mask techniques, apply intubation only when appropriate and discontinue it as soon as feasible. This study supports the use of a protocol in helping discontinue mechanical ventilation and Dr. Luce argues that such protocols, particularly in intensive care settings, can decrease the cost and increase the quality of care.


One methodologic problem with this study is related to physicians' awareness of the ongoing trial and their reaction to it. Since 300 patients were enrolled over a 9 month period in two intensive care units, one must assume that most of the physicians taking care of ICU patients took care of a significant number of study patients. Were they aware of this ongoing trial? This is not specifically addressed in the article.

If the attending physicians were aware of the trial and of its purpose, they would have been unblinded as to group assignment, at least for the intervention group. Such unblinding can lead to treatment bias, since the attitude towards respiratory management could be influenced by this knowledge. If the attendings were not aware of the trial, they must have noticed that some of their patients were successfully passing trials of unassisted ventilation and some were not; they could have misinterpreted the fact that patients (controls) were not passing these trials as indicating a poor prognosis for weaning, and consequently delayed any attempts at extubation. Thus, the degree of blinding of the attending physicians is an important issue, which was not discussed in the article.

A second methodologic issue relates to the fact that in the intervention group the attending physicians were given a message from a third party concerning patient management, whereas in the control group no such message was conveyed. Such third-party messages presumably exert pressure on the recipient to change his/her behavior. Thus, the shorter time to extubation in the intervention group was probably the result of a combination of two factors: the protocol that was applied and the pressure to extubate communicated by the message. From this trial design, there is no way to quantitate the relative contribution of these two factors.

In the editorial, Dr. Luce states that the trial "demonstrates that the systematic application of a protocol for discontinuation of mechanical ventilation yields better outcomes ... than are achieved by relying on the judgement of a physician alone". It should be borne in mind, however, that another study of strategies for weaning patients from respirators found a different approach to be more effective. Also, as mentioned above, some of the benefit from this trial is probably due to the impetus provided by a third-party notification and some of it may be due to the effect of the trial itself on physician behavior.

December 23, 1996

Reader comments

Date: Fri, 27 Dec 1996
From: mfisher@med.su.oz.au (Malcolm Fisher)

I agree with your comments on methodology but one must concede it is hard to objectively study weaning and treat patients at the same time. I still think the major problem with this study is that it represents a study of what is a bad practice. The drive to get people breathing spontaneously and off a ventilator should be a major role of intensivists and once a day assessment is totally inadequate. A further major compounding factor is that the goal of extubation may be delayed until a "safer" time than 0200 depending on available staff, or delayed because a patient is going somewhere and leaving the tube in a little longer may make this safer. In our post bypass unit the nurses follow a protocol where assessments are made hourly and ventilation changes and extubation follow a logical pattern and most are extubated in the first 24 hours postoperative (and most of them in the first 12 hours). No doctor is necessary.

A similar practice may not be in the best interests of a quad, asthmatic, or patient with Guillain Barre. Some patients are ventilated for transport or to have CT/MRI and can be extubated on arrival on MV criteria alone. To determine a patient can breathe spontaneously and them contact the "name on the end of the Bed" to decide what to do next is to me very far from "best practice" and I believe that decision should be made by the person capable of making the assessment. If the patient can breathe spontaneously they should be extubated NOW rather than wait for "Sir" to finish his rooms and come in for the evening round and pontificate. To do otherwise is cruel, and foolish.


Intensive Therapy Unit
Royal North Shore hospital of Sydney
St Leonards, NSW 2065
University of Sydney

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