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To determine whether hospital discharge alone represents a good outcome for patients who had prolonged intensive care after cardiac surgery by studying their postdischarge survival and functional outcome. The secondary objective is to estimate the proportion of intensive care unit (ICU) resources used by the long-stay (≥10 initial consecutive ICU days) patients and to identify preoperative patient characteristics that are associated with a prolonged ICU stay and hospital and long-term survival.Inception cohort study.The Cleveland Clinic Foundation, a tertiary care, academic teaching institution.Cardiac surgery patients with an initial ICU stay of 10 or more consecutive days.Data were collected daily during hospitalization on every adult who underwent coronary artery bypass graft and/or valve surgery at one institution in 1993. Discharged patients who spent >10 initial consecutive days in the ICU after surgery were contacted by telephone to determine vital status and functional capacity using the Duke Activity Status Index. Total ICU and total hospital direct costs were obtained for each patient.The primary outcome measurements were ICU length of stay, hospital mortality, after-surgery and postdischarge mortality and functional capacity, and relative resource utilization. Of the 2,618 cardiac surgery patients who met the inclusion criteria, 142 (5.4%) had an initial ICU length of stay of 10 or more consecutive days. Of these, 47 (33.1%) died in the hospital. Ninety-four of the 95 discharged patients were followed up (median follow-up, 30.6 months), and 44 of the 94 (46.8%) died during the follow-up period. The median Duke Activity Status Index for the 50 survivors was 26 out of a possible 58.2. The 142 long-stay patients used 50% of the total ICU days and 48% of the total ICU direct cost for all 2,618 patients.Many survivors of prolonged intensive care die soon after hospital discharge and many longer term survivors have a poor functional state. Therefore, hospital discharge is an incomplete measure of outcome for these patients, and longer follow-up is more appropriate. The relatively small number of patients who require prolonged intensive care consumes a disproportionate amount of the total ICU and total hospital direct cost.