Critical Care Beds and Resource Utilization: Current Trends and Controversies

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Recent studies have shown a dramatic increase in the number of intensive care unit (ICU) beds in recent decades. As technologies have become more complex, ICUs continue to grow in size and in specialization. The driving forces behind ICU bed expansion include not only the incorporation of advanced technologies but also other factors such as the increased utilization of ICU beds for patients who previously were not offered ICU care—those who may be terminally ill and those who are not critically ill. This expansion of ICU care in the United States sets it apart from other industrialized nations with comparably fewer ICU beds in relation to other hospital beds. The consequences of this expansion are now being felt in the form of unused beds, workforce shortages, and overuse of ICUs for patients who previously were not cared for in ICUs. ICUs are also now commonly used in the care of dying patients. In coming decades it is likely that changes will need to take place to forestall exorbitant costs and labor shortages. In addition to bringing in new forms of medical staff such as hospitalists and physician assistants, recent opinion papers have suggested that a de-escalation of ICU growth and a new tiered system of ICU care will be necessary in the United States.

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