ICU Care May Lead To More Tests and Costs Without Necessarily Better Outcomes Interview with:
Dong W. Chang, MD, MS

Dong W. Chang, MD, is a lead researcher at LA BioMed, one of the nation’s leading independent nonprofit research institutes. His research interests include improving the delivery of care to patients with a focus on identifying new healthcare models for reducing hospital re-admission. He also is the director of Medical-Respiratory ICU at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Response: With the use of intensive care units (ICUs) on the rise in many hospitals, researchers at LA BioMed and UCLA examined ICU usage. They found patients who were admitted to these units underwent more costly and invasive procedures but didn’t have better mortality rates than hospitalized patients with the same medical conditions who weren’t admitted to the ICU.

The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, examined records from 156,842 hospitalizations at 94 acute care hospitals for four medical conditions where ICU care is frequently provided but may not be medically necessary:diabetic ketoacidosis, pulmonary embolism, upper gastrointestinal hemorrhage and congestive heart failure. The study found the hospitals that utilize ICUs more frequently were more likely to perform invasive procedures and incur higher costs. But the study found these hospitals had no improvement in mortality among patients in the ICU when compared with other hospitalized patients with these four conditions.

Smaller hospitals and teaching hospitals used ICUs at higher rates for patients with the four conditions studied that did larger hospitals. The difference in the average costs ranged from $647 more for upper gastrointestinal hemorrhage care in the ICU to $3,412 more to care for a patient with congestive heart failure in the ICU when compared with hospital care for the same conditions outside the ICU. What should readers take away from your report?

Response: The study findings suggest that optimizing the value of ICU care will require assessments of systematic institutional factors that may lead clinicians to over-utilize ICU care. In addition, overuse of ICUs among patients who can likely be treated in non-ICU settings may lead to inappropriately aggressive care and misallocation of resources away from patients who may truly need critical care services. What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Response: This study begins to tell the story of how the inappropriate use of ICUs can be harmful for patients and costly for the healthcare system. But the story is incomplete, and we need more information on the mechanisms that drive some hospitals to use their ICUs more readily.

In the meantime, hospital policies and institutional protocols in non-ICU settings that lead to overutilization of ICU care should be examined because they represent the best opportunities for reducing invasive procedures and lowering costs while ensuring the best possible care for the patient. Thank you for your contribution to the community.


Chang DW, Shapiro MF. Association Between Intensive Care Unit Utilization During Hospitalization and Costs, Use of Invasive Procedures, and Mortality. JAMA Intern Med.Published online August 08, 2016. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.4298.

Note: Content is Not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider regarding your specific medical condition and questions.

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Last Updated on August 8, 2016 by Marie Benz MD FAAD