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Unplanned hospital admission is a measure of quality of care in the setting of day-case surgery. We set out to identify the incidence and causes of unplanned hospital admission in a paediatric day-case unit.A retrospective survey to determine the incidence and causes of unplanned hospital admissions in children undergoing day-case surgery. The survey covered the period from January 1996 until December 1999 inclusive in a university affiliated children's hospital. This hospital is the second largest paediatric referral centre in Ireland with total admissions across all specialities during the study period of 42 738.During the study period 10 772 children underwent day-case surgery, of whom 242 (2.2%) experienced unplanned hospital admission. The reasons for admission were surgical 146 (54%), anaesthetic 44 (16%), social 38 (14%), medical 31 (11%) and unclassified 10 (4%). Pain, surgical complications and/or further management, admission for observation, extensive surgery and oozing were the commonest surgical reasons. Postoperative nausea and vomiting, anaesthetic-related complication and somnolence were the commonest anaesthetic causes responsible for admission. Surgery performed after 15:00 h was an important factor associated with admission for social reasons. Orthopaedic surgery accounted for the largest absolute number of unplanned admissions with 61 (25%), followed by urology with 46 (19%) and general surgery with 46 (19%). However, measured as percentage of caseload, urology had the highest proportion of unplanned hospital admissions.This study demonstrated that the incidence and causes of unplanned hospital admission following day-case surgery in children are similar to those for adults.