Triage and optimization: A new paradigm in the treatment of massive pulmonary embolism

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date



Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery








massive pulmonary embolism; surgical pulmonary embolectomy; veno-arterial extracorporeal membrane oxygenation


Background: Massive pulmonary embolism (PE) remains a highly fatal condition. Although venoarterial extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (VA-ECMO) and surgical pulmonary embolectomy in the management of massive PE have been reported previously, the outcomes remain less than ideal. We hypothesized that the institution of a protocolized approach of triage and optimization using VA-ECMO would result in improved outcomes compared with historical surgical management. Methods: All patients with a massive PE referred to the cardiac surgery service between 2010 and 2017 were retrospectively reviewed. Patients were stratified by treatment strategy: historical control versus the protocolized approach. In the historical control group, the primary intervention was surgical pulmonary embolectomy. In the protocol approach group, patients were treated based on an algorithmic approach using VA-ECMO. The primary outcome was 1-year survival. Results: A total of 56 patients (control, n = 27; protocol, n = 29) were identified. All 27 patients in the historical control group underwent surgical pulmonary embolectomy, whereas 2 of 29 patients in the protocol approach group were deemed appropriate for direct surgical pulmonary embolectomy. The remaining 27 patients were placed on VA-ECMO. In the protocol approach group, 15 of 29 patients were treated with anticoagulation alone and 14 patients ultimately required surgical pulmonary embolectomy. One-year survival was significantly lower in the historical control group compared with the protocol approach group (73% vs 96%; P =.02), with no deaths occurring after surgical pulmonary embolectomy in the protocol approach group. Conclusions: A protocolized strategy involving the aggressive institution of VA-ECMO appears to be an effective method to triage and optimize patients with massive PE to recovery or intervention. Implementation of this strategy rather than an aggressive surgical approach may reduce the mortality associated with massive PE.