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Endotracheal intubation in the ICU

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Endotracheal intubation in the ICU is a high-risk procedure, resulting in significant morbidity and mortality. Up to 40% of cases are associated with marked hypoxemia or hypotension. The ICU patient is physiologically very different from the usual patient who undergoes intubation in the operating room, and different intubation techniques should be considered. The common operating room practice of sedation and neuromuscular blockade to facilitate intubation may carry significant risk in the ICU patient with a marked oxygenation abnormality, particularly when performed by the non-expert. Preoxygenation is largely ineffective in these patients and oxygen desaturation occurs rapidly on induction of anesthesia, limiting the time available to secure the airway. The ICU environment is less favorable for complex airway management than the operating room, given the frequent lack of availability of additional equipment or additional expert staff. ICU intubations are frequently carried out by trainees, with a lesser degree of airway experience. Even in the presence of a non-concerning airway assessment, these patients are optimally managed as a difficult airway, utilizing an awake approach. Endotracheal intubation may be achieved by awake direct laryngoscopy in the sick ICU patient whose level of consciousness may be reduced by sepsis, hypercapnia or hypoxemia. As the patient’s spontaneous respiratory efforts are not depressed by the administration of drugs, additional time is available to obtain equipment and expertise in the event of failure to secure the airway. ICU intubation complications should be tracked as part of the ICU quality improvement process.

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The author would like to thank Stephanie Lapinsky for helping develop a rational argument and for review of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Stephen E. Lapinsky.

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The author declares that he has no competing interests.

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Lapinsky, S.E. Endotracheal intubation in the ICU. Crit Care 19, 258 (2015).

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