Therapy for recurrent malignant pleural effusion (MPE) is palliative. Video-assisted thoracic surgery with talc pleurodesis (VATS/TP) is limited to inpatients with completely expandable lung parenchyma. We evaluated the outcomes, safety, and efficacy of an indwelling pleural drainage catheter (PDC) system compared with VATS/TP. Forty-one consecutive patients with symptomatic MPE seen between September 2000 and April 2002 were studied. Patients able to fully re-expand their lungs were treated with VATS/TP; those who could not had PDC placement. Twenty-four (59%) were women. The mean age was 64 +/- 13 years. VATS/TP was performed in only seven patients (17%), and 34 patients had PDC placement. The length of stay (LOS) was 2.8 +/- 5.1 days in the 18 PDC patients who were initially seen as outpatients and 9.4 +/- 9.0 days in the inpatient population (P = 0.013). Short (< 2 days) LOS occurred in 19 (56%) PDC patients but in no VATS/TP patients (P = 0.007). Twenty-eight patients (68%) died during follow-up: three VATS/TP patients (43%) and 25 (74%) PDC patients (P = 0.112). We conclude that the PDC system is an efficacious treatment of patients with MPEs and trapped lungs. The LOS is short in patients initially evaluated as outpatients which contributes to the perception of increased quality of life.