Idle intravenous catheters are associated with preventable complications


Intravenous catheters (ICs) are common and necessary for inpatient care. However, peripheral and especially central venous catheters (CVCs) are associated with increased risk for local and systemic complications, including bloodstream infections and endocarditis.

Daniel Shirley, MD

University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health

Dr. Daniel Shirley

Prevention of these complications is important and should be a major focus of infection control and patient safety practices. There are three main points of focus on infection prevention with regard to ICs – proper insertion techniques, proper care of the catheter, and prompt removal when it is no longer necessary.

We focused our review, published in the American Journal of Infection Control (2016 Oct. doi: 10.1016/j.ajic.2016.03.073), on the final point – determining the prevalence, risk factors, and outcomes related to idle intravenous catheters. To accomplish this, we conducted an integrative review of published studies related to idle catheters, excluding reviews, abstracts, and commentaries. Thirteen studies met the inclusion criteria and four of these focused on CVCs.

Generally, an idle catheter is one that remains in place even though it is not being used for patient care. However, the definition of an “idle” catheter varied amongst the reviewed studies, as did the unit of measure, especially for peripheral catheters. Central venous catheter-focused studies were more consistent in using “idle catheter days” and “catheter days.”

Studies of peripheral catheters revealed that 16%-50% of patients had an idle catheter of some type. For the studies focused on CVCs, the percentage of patients with idle catheters ranged from 2.7% in one intensive care unit to 26.2% in a different study. Interestingly, in the study with 2.7% idle CVCs in the ICU, there was a higher percentage of idle CVCs outside of the ICU in the same hospital.

The major reasons for leaving catheters in place in studies where reasons were noted were convenience, future intention to use intravenous medication, and inappropriate use of intravenous medications when oral could be used.

Although data are scarce, complications in the reviewed studies were relatively common with idle peripheral catheters, where 9%-12% suffered thrombophlebitis. Obviously, the risk for catheter-related bloodstream infection increases as the number of catheter days increases – this is especially important with regard to idle CVCs.

Decreasing the prevalence of idle catheters is likely to decrease the risk for infection and improve patient safety. Based on our review of the data, a standardized definition of an “idle catheter” is needed. At the very least, a standard definition should be developed at each institution. This would allow an individual hospital the ability to identify and track the presence of these lines, and implement targeted interventions to decrease the proportion of idle lines. Ideally, a common definition would be created and validated so that data and interventions could be comparable across institutions and guidelines could be developed.

The goal of targeted interventions should be zero idle lines. Prevention of idle peripheral catheters should also be pursued, but because CVC-related complications are often more serious, these lines are often the focus of efforts. Use of peripherally inserted central catheters (PICCs) has increased and while these catheters in some settings may have decreased complication risk, compared with femoral/internal jugular/subclavian CVCs, prevention of idle catheter days is paramount for these catheters as well.

Many ICUs, including at our own institution, have instituted programs to closely monitor for ongoing need for CVCs. This increased focus on the CVC likely explains the lower rates of idle catheters in ICUs noted in the reviewed studies. This close surveillance can be done outside of the ICU as well, and could include peripheral catheters.

At our own institution, the need for catheters is reviewed on some units as part of formalized patient safety rounds. Another potential group of interventions could focus on electronic medical record (EMR)-based changes such as limits on the duration of the order, requirement for renewal of the order, or on-screen reminders of the presence of a catheter. This sort of intervention could possibly be expanded as EMR use becomes more common and robust. For instance, if intravenous medications have not been ordered or given in a certain amount of time, an alert might be triggered. Another EMR-based mechanism could be to require an indication for ongoing catheter use.

Education about the potential adverse outcomes of idle catheters is important. Promoting a team-based approach to interventions, where all involved team members can discuss patient safety issues on equal ground is paramount to successfully decreasing idle catheters and improving patient care and safety in general. As with other hospital-wide initiatives, engagement of hospital administration is important to decrease barriers to implementation.

Intravenous catheter use will remain an integral part of patient care, but efforts should be made to create standardization around the definition of an idle catheter, standardize units of measure, and institute programs to prevent idle catheters.

Daniel Shirley, MD, MS, is assistant professor in the division of infectious disease at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Medicine and Public Health and the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital. Nasia Safdar, MD, PhD, is associate professor in the division of infectious disease at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Medicine and Public Health and the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital.


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