Intercostal catheter insertion – a discussion and review

Having just read this study into intercostal catheter insertion by MICA Paramedics in Victoria, it may be interesting for those who are thinking of a career in the Paramedical Sciences industry to review the diagnostic criteria for Tension pneumothorax and when to have a high index of suspicion.

Read about the study here

It is particularly relevant for HLT51020 Diploma of Emergency Health Care students, or even people who are completing a HLT41120 Certificate IV in Healthcare who may be interested in completing their diploma in the future or who want to bolster their emergency healthcare learning.

What struck us in this report was it found no paramedic iatrogenic deaths from misdiagnosis. It reinforces a conversation I have had with many of  the Australian Paramedical College students about safe practice, not reluctant practice, but really knowing the diagnostic criteria, adverse effects and contraindications for treatment.

If you come across similar things you find interesting, please let us know and we can help develop our collective intelligence.


An audit of ambulance service clinical records from 2001 to 2002 in Melbourne, Australia revealed 10 patients with tension pneumothorax on arrival at hospital which had been undetected or untreated by paramedics. The clinical practice guideline for paramedic recognition of tension pneumothorax was subsequently changed to emphasise heightened clinical suspicion of a tension pneumothorax in the setting of chest trauma, especially when patients were managed with positive pressure ventilation.

This study was undertaken to determine whether the number of undetected or untreated tension pneumothoraces had decreased after the new clinical practice guideline and associated education program; if there were unintended consequences arising from earlier paramedic intervention; and what effect, if any, this change had on subsequent hospital treatment.


Retrospective case note review of all patients requiring intercostal catheter (ICC) insertion at The Alfred Hospital, Melbourne, Australia, using records from Ambulance Victoria, the Alfred Trauma Registry and the National Coronial Information System.


In 2001–2002 paramedics treated 22 patients with suspected tension pneumothorax before transport to the Alfred Hospital. In 2006–2007 this number had increased to 81. There was a decrease from ten to four in the number of unrecognised or untreated tension pneumothoraces between the two time periods. No unintended or adverse consequences of pre-hospital needle decompression could be found. However, there was an increase in the number of patients who had prehospital needle decompression that needed further treatment for tension pneumothorax on arrival at hospital. This need for further treatment was associated with use of shorter cannulas and unilateral needle decompression by paramedics.


A small change in clinical practice guidelines, supported by an education and audit program, led to a reduction in unrecognised untreated tension pneumothoraces by paramedics without an increase in complications. Paramedics should be aware that a shorter cannula may fail to reach the pleural space and that both sides of the chest may require decompression.

Australian Paramedical College

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