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Previous reports describe a population of non-cardiac surgical patients at high risk of complications and death. Outcomes are sub-optimal for such patients, perhaps in part related to inadequate provision or ineffective utilisation of critical care resources. In this study, data describing 26 051 in-patient non-cardiac surgical procedures performed in a large NHS Trust between April 2002 and March 2005 were extracted from local databases. Of these procedures, 2 414 (9.3%) were high risk with an overall mortality rate of 12.2% and a prolonged hospital stay (high-risk population median (IQR) 16 (9–30) days vs standard risk 3 (2–6) days). Mortality rates for specific procedures were consistent with UK averages. However, only 852 (35.3%) high-risk patients were admitted to a critical care unit at any stage after surgery. Of 294 high-risk patients who died, only 144 (49.0%) were admitted to a critical care unit at any time and only 75 (25.6%) of these deaths occurred within a critical care area. Mortality rates were high amongst patients discharged and readmitted to critical care (37.7%) and amongst those admitted to critical care following initial postoperative care on a standard ward (29.9%). These data suggest that the outcome of high-risk general surgical patients could be improved by adequate provision and more effective utilisation of critical care resources.