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The use of extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) for respiratory failure in adults is growing rapidly, driven in large part by advances in technology, which have made ECMO devices easier to implement and safer and more efficient. Accompanying this increase in use is a nearly exponential increase in ECMO-related literature. However, the great majority of the literature is composed of retrospective observational data, often in the form of single-center studies with relatively small numbers of subjects. The overall lack of high-quality data, including prospective randomized trials, makes it difficult to justify the rate at which ECMO use is increasing and calls attention to the need for more rigorously designed studies. Nonetheless, given its ability to support patients with severe gas exchange impairment and the potential for it to minimize the deleterious effects of invasive mechanical ventilation, there appears to be a legitimate role for ECMO in severe respiratory failure in adults.