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To identify clinical predictors for tracheostomy among patients requiring mechanical ventilation in the intensive care unit (ICU) setting and to describe the outcomes of patients receiving a tracheostomy.Prospective cohort study.Intensive care units of Barnes-Jewish Hospital, an urban teaching hospital.521 patients requiring mechanical ventilation in an ICU for >12 hours.Prospective patient surveillance and data collection.The main variables studied were hospital mortality, duration of mechanical ventilation, length of stay in the ICU and the hospital, and acquired organ-system derangements. Fifty-one (9.8%) patients received a tracheostomy. The hospital mortality of patients with a tracheostomy was statistically less than the hospital mortality of patients not receiving a tracheostomy (13.7% vs. 26.4%; p = .048), despite having a similar severity of illness at the time of admission to the ICU (Acute Physiology and Chronic Health Evaluation [APACHE] II scores, 19.2 ± 6.1 vs. 17.8 ± 7.2; p = .173). Patients receiving a tracheostomy had significantly longer durations of mechanical ventilation (19.5 ± 15.7 days vs. 4.1 ± 5.3 days; p < .001) and hospitalization (30.9 ± 18.1 days vs. 12.8 ± 10.1 days; p < .001) compared with patients not receiving a tracheostomy. Similarly, the average duration of intensive care was significantly longer among the hospital nonsurvivors receiving a tracheostomy (n = 7) compared with the hospital nonsurvivors without a tracheostomy (n = 124; 30.9 ± 16.3 days vs. 7.9 ± 7.3 days; p < .001). Multiple logistic regression analysis demonstrated that the development of nosocomial pneumonia (adjusted odds ratio [AOR], 4.72; 95% confidence interval [CI], 3.24-6.87; p < .001), the administration of aerosol treatments (AOR, 3.00; 95% CI, 2.18-4.13; p < .001), having a witnessed aspiration event (AOR, 3.79; 95% CI, 2.30-6.24; p = .008), and requiring reintubation (AOR, 2.21; 95% CI, 1.54-3.18; p = .028) were variables independently associated with patients undergoing tracheostomy and receiving prolonged ventilatory support. Among the 44 survivors receiving a tracheostomy in the ICU, 38 (86.4%) were alive 30 days after hospital discharge and 31 (70.5%) were living at home.Despite having longer lengths of stay in the ICU and hospital, patients with respiratory failure who received a tracheostomy had favorable outcomes compared with patients who did not receive a tracheostomy. These data suggest that physicians are capable of selecting critically ill patients who most likely will benefit from placement of a tracheostomy. Additionally, specific clinical variables were identified as risk factors for prolonged ventilatory assistance and the need for tracheostomy.