BACKGROUND--Patients are often referred to thoracic units for management of empyema after the acute phase has been treated with antibiotics but without adequate drainage. This study evaluates the effects of delay in surgical treatment of empyema thoracis on morbidity and mortality. METHODS--Thirty nine consecutive patients were studied from January 1991 to June 1992. Two groups (group 1, 16 patients; group 2, 23 patients) were compared depending on the time spent under the care of other specialists before referral to the thoracic unit (group 1, seven days or less; group 2, eight days or more). The reasons for delay in referral were analysed. RESULTS--Four patients were treated conservatively with chest drainage alone (all in group 1). Thirty five patients required rib resection and drainage of their empyema (group 1, 12 patients; group 2, 23 patients). Nineteen (all in group 2) of the 35 patients who had rib resections went on to have decortication. The commonest cause of empyema was post-pneumonic (37 out of 39 patients). Staphylococcus aureus was the commonest organism isolated. Misdiagnosis (five patients), inappropriate antibiotics (six patients), and inappropriate placement of chest drainage tubes (three patients) all contributed to persistence and eventual progression of empyema. The overall mortality was 10% and mortality increased with age. The median stay in hospital was 9.5 days (range 7-12 days, n = 4) for patients treated with closed tube drainage only; 18 days (range 10-33 days, n = 16) for patients who had undergone rib resections and open drainage; and 28 days (range 22-49 days, n = 19) for patients who underwent decortication. The likelihood of having a staged procedure (antibiotics, closed tube drainage, open drainage with rib resection, and finally decortication) increased when closed tube drainage was persevered with for more than seven days. The total hospital stay was positively related with the time before referral for surgical treatment. Anaemia, low albumin concentrations, and worsening liver function were found in group 2 compared with group 1. CONCLUSIONS--Early adequate operative drainage in patients with empyema results in low morbidity, shorter stays in hospital, and good long term outcome. These patients should be treated aggressively and early referral for definitive surgical management is recommended.
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