Background Air leaks after lobectomy are associated with increased length of stay (LOS) and protracted resource utilization. Portable drainage systems (PDS) allow for outpatient management of air leaks in patients otherwise meeting discharge criteria. We evaluated the safety and cost efficiency of a protocol for outpatient management of air leaks with a PDS. Methods We retrospectively assessed patients who underwent lobectomy for non-small-cell lung cancer at our institution between 2004 and 2014. All patients discharged with a PDS for air leak were included in the analysis. The study group was compared to an internally matched cohort of patients undergoing lobectomy for non-small-cell lung cancer managed without the need for outpatient PDS. Study end points included resource utilization, postoperative complications, and readmission. Results A total of 739 lobectomies were performed during the study period, 73 (10%) patients with air leaks were discharged with a PDS after fulfilling postoperative milestones. Shorter LOS was observed in the study group (3.88 ± 2.4 versus 5.68 ± 5.7 d, P = 0.014) without significant differences in 30-d readmission (11.7% versus 9.0%, P = 0.615). PDS-related complications occurred in 6.8% of study patients (5/73), and 2.7% (2/73) required overnight readmission. PDSs were used for 8.30 ± 4.5 outpatient days. A CMS-based cost analysis predicted an overall savings of $686.72/patient (4.9% of Medicare reimbursement for a major thoracic procedure), associated with significantly fewer hospital days and resources used. Conclusions In patients otherwise meeting discharge criteria, outpatient management of air leaks is safe and effective. This strategy is associated with improved efficiency of postoperative care and a modest reduction in hospital costs. This model may be applicable to other thoracic procedures associated with protracted LOS.
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