Do we really need more intensive care unit beds?

Do we really need more intensive care unit beds?

Waseem Zakaria Aziz Zakhary, Edwin Wilberforce Turton, Joerg Karl Ender

Department of Anesthesiology and Intensive Care Medicine, Heart Center Leipzig, Leipzig, Germany

Correspondence to: Waseem Zakaria Aziz Zakhary. Department of Anesthesiology and Intensive Care Medicine, Heart Center Leipzig, Germany, Struempellstr 39, 04289 Leipzig, Germany. Email:

Submitted Jun 19, 2016. Accepted for publication Jun 23, 2016.

doi: 10.21037/atm.2016.08.07

Wide scale research and statistics are the corner stone for defining the current status as well as for optimal future planning.

Halpern and colleagues (1) continued on their way to help the critical care community and health care decision makers, not only in the United States but worldwide, to understand the trends in critical care medicine (CCM) bed changes. This analysis is novel by looking at these changes in age-specific groups. In spite of being retrieved from United States national information data, it can be applicable to other countries. Firstly, the methodology used in this analysis can guide researchers interested in health care economics to undergo similar studies in their countries (2). Secondly, the information can be used in other developed countries (e.g., Western Europe), which have the same CCM bed trends as in the US [e.g., Germany (3), Austria and Belgium (4)].

The authors showed that the number of CCM beds continue to increase, despite of decreasing overall hospital bed numbers, in the absence of guidelines mandating this expansion. This increase is concomitant with the increase in the adult patient population, but this is not true for the premature/neonatal age group. Premature/neonatal CCM beds increased despite a decrease in this patient population. This study shows that the cost of CCM increased by 61.1% per day, in the same period of time.

How can we change these trends? There is no simple answer to this and the main question remains: do we have the right incentives to facilitate the cooperation of all the involved medical disciplines in order to decrease the number of CCM beds and to optimize its use in different hospitals?

In hospitals where the different involved disciplines’ budgets are capped, multidisciplinary strategies to reduce CCM beds are difficult to realize, even if it is cost-effective. Reimbursement of hospitals to develop new strategies to reduce CCM beds and optimize its use should be promoted (5).

Cost-effectiveness in general, is the balance between resources and demands. “Resource allocation” is the term that must be adopted by governments and health care providers. Applying the fast track concept outside of the intensive care unit (ICU) is an example of “macro-allocation”. Palliative management outside of the ICU is an example of “micro-allocation”. Most ICU health care providers are not aware of the real dimensions of the cost problem and specific methods to solve it. “Resource allocation” may be in conflict with evidence-based clinical decision making and ethical principles (6). Governments have to employ the least confrontational approach consistent with the goal.

It has been shown that center-related factors influence ICU length of stay almost to the same extent as patient- and procedure-related factor. High dependency units with precise extubation protocols and high nurse/patient ratios may allow for the management of up to 70% more patients without requiring additional CCM beds (7).

Successful strategies to reduce or even avoid ICU admission (8) should include implementation of guidelines and protocols, careful patient selection, proper patient education, regular staff training and eventually the use of new technology [i.e., telemetry (9)] to ensure patient safety on the general ward. This applies to both, the adult and pediatric patient populations (10,11).

We want to congratulate and thank Halpern and colleagues for providing us with important information about the trends in CCM and the resulting costs. A thorough analysis and understanding of an existing problem is the first step in solving it. Needless to say CCM needs international cooperation and multinational studies to compare these trends.




Provenance: This is a Guest Commentary commissioned by Section Editor Zhi Mao, MD (Department of Critical Care Medicine, Chinese People’s Liberation Army General Hospital, Beijing, China).

Conflicts of Interest: The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare.

Comment on: Halpern NA, Goldman DA, Tan KS, et al. Trends in Critical Care Beds and Use Among Population Groups and Medicare and Medicaid Beneficiaries in the United States: 2000-2010. Crit Care Med 2016;44:1490-9.


  1. Halpern NA, Goldman DA, Tan KS, et al. Trends in Critical Care Beds and Use Among Population Groups and Medicare and Medicaid Beneficiaries in the United States: 2000-2010. Crit Care Med 2016;44:1490-9. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  2. Halpern NA, Pastores SM. Understanding the Russell equation and projection estimates to describe critical care costs in the USA. Intensive Care Med 2015;41:1828-30. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  3. Thattil R, Klepzig D, Schuster M. Intensive care capacities in Germany: provision and usage between 1991 and 2009. Anaesthesist 2012;61:56-62. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  4. Wunsch H, Angus DC, Harrison DA, et al. Variation in critical care services across North America and Western Europe. Crit Care Med 2008;36:2787-93. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  5. Higgins AM, Harris AH. Health economic methods: cost-minimization, cost-effectiveness, cost-utility, and cost-benefit evaluations. Crit Care Clin 2012;28:11-24. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  6. Rubenfeld GD. Cost-effective critical care: cost containment and rationing. Semin Respir Crit Care Med 2012;33:413-20. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  7. Lassnigg A, Hiesmayr MJ, Bauer P, et al. Effect of centre-, patient- and procedure-related factors on intensive care resource utilisation after cardiac surgery. Intensive Care Med 2002;28:1453-61. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  8. Cheng DC. Fast-track cardiac surgery: economic implications in postoperative care. J Cardiothorac Vasc Anesth 1998;12:72-9. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  9. Benjamin EM, Klugman RA, Luckmann R, et al. Am J Manag Care 2013;19:e225-32. [PubMed]
  10. Goodman DC, Fisher ES, Little GA, et al. The relation between the availability of neonatal intensive care and neonatal mortality. N Engl J Med 2002;346:1538-44. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  11. Smith AG, Andrews S, Bratton SL, et al. Pediatric palliative care and inpatient hospital costs: a longitudinal cohort study. Pediatrics 2015;135:694-700. [Crossref] [PubMed]
Cite this article as: Zakhary WZ, Turton EW, Ender JK. Do we really need more intensive care unit beds? Ann Transl Med 2016;4(18):356. doi: 10.21037/atm.2016.08.07


  • There are currently no refbacks.