Oct 222013
Ultrasound-guided central venous catheter insertion:
Standard of care, or preventing procedural skills?

By Dr. Philippe Rola

Ok, so let me preface this with the fact that I walk around with a handheld ultrasound rather than a stethoscope, and that I examine ALL patients with a focused cardiopulmonary and abdominal exam. My bias towards bedside ultrasound is ridiculously huge. I think practicing without it, once the skill is acquired, is unethical.

Having said that, I have an issue with the fact that it now seems to be “standard of care” for all lines to be ultrasound guided.

Hmm…here are the problems as I see them:

1. I have come across junior staff intensivists who have never inserted a jugular or subclavian catheter without ultrasound, using landmark techniques. That is an utter shame and worse, a possible disaster in an instance of technology failure (ie the ultrasound is out for repair, etc…). Intensivists who would be unable to put in a line???

2. I have been teaching bedside ultrasound for the last 5 years, and practicing it for over a decade. I teach ultrasound-guided line workshops. The ability to safely and properly follow a needle tip to venous puncture is an expert-level skill. I cannot count how many times a participant has sworn that his beam is right at the tip of the needle and been befuddled when I point to the blue phantom and show him how he is scanning just a bit beyond the hub and that the tip is in fact several centimetres into the blue phantom (better the phantom than the lung!). The problem comes from a false sense of confidence and security that the procedure being “guided” provides. I’ve already seen several carotid insertions and pneumothoraces with IJ and SC guided procedures…

3. The evidence is shabby in the following sense: if you look at the papers comparing blind to guided, the stats on the blind procedures are not exactly very impressive to start with (time and number of attempts)… Also, did all trainees who are out there doing guided procedures receive the same training that those in the study did? All residents with a probe are not trained/created equal, hate to break it to you…

So…what is my preference? I spot all lines, meaning that I scan both sides of the neck for jugular size, position relative to the carotid and anomalies. I then do the IJ line blind, unless it is particularly small or really anomalous (eg right on top of the carotid), then I would do it guided. I use ultrasound for ventilated subclavians.

In the interest of science I have timed myself and recorded stats. I can generally get a functional line (puncture to catheter insertion – not including suture time) in 60-90 seconds, with an average of about 1.1 punctures (eg 1 in 10 times I need to widthdraw and re-angle/puncture). Obviously this comes with about 18 years of doing central lines (since I was an R1), but I know I’m not the only one out there with this type of skill – there are a lot of CC/ED/anasthesia..etc docs who can do the same. But it does take practice.

My suggestion would be for trainees to spot the vein and keep a ready ultrasound probe (sheathed and sterile), and do a blind puncture. If they find it on a first pass, then great. If not, then go ahead with the ultrasound (but here I would hope that they would have had some good training in guided insertion and not just that given by a senior resident who’s done all of 5 lines…).

So I think that this is yet another example of N=1, in this case the 1 being the physician rather than the patient, and I think we are in a bit of a tough spot with these recommendations, as the skills will deteriorate in time, and within a generation there will be few if any physicians well-versed in landmark insertion, which would be a shame. It has served us well in the last decades and, unlike the stethoscope, I don’t think its time has passed.

Dr. Philippe Rola is Chief of Service of Intensive Care, Santa Cabrini Hospital and President of the Critical Care & Ultrasound Institute. He blogs at thinkingcriticalcare.com.

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Ultrasound for central line placement: crucial, or just a crutch?