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Hospital strain and variation in sepsis ICU admission practices and associated outcomes

Critical Care Explorations February 2, 2023

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Research Areas


OBJECTIVES: To understand how strain-process-outcome relationships in patients with sepsis may vary among hospitals.

DESIGN: Retrospective cohort study using a validated hospital capacity strain index as a within-hospital instrumental variable governing ICU versus ward admission, stratified by hospital.

SETTING: Twenty-seven U.S. hospitals from 2013 to 2018.

PATIENTS: High-acuity emergency department patients with sepsis who do not require life support therapies.


MEASUREMENTS AND MAIN RESULTS: The mean predicted probability of ICU admission across strain deciles ranged from 4.9% (lowest ICU-utilizing hospital for sepsis without life support) to 61.2% (highest ICU-utilizing hospital for sepsis without life support). The difference in the predicted probabilities of ICU admission between the lowest and highest strain deciles ranged from 9.0% (least strain-sensitive hospital) to 45.2% (most strain-sensitive hospital). In pooled analyses, emergency department patients with sepsis (n = 90,150) experienced a 1.3-day longer median hospital length of stay (LOS) if admitted initially to the ICU compared with the ward, but across the 27 study hospitals (n = 517-6,564), this effect varied from 9.0 days shorter (95% CI, –10.8 to –7.2; p < 0.001) to 19.0 days longer (95% CI, 16.7–21.3; p < 0.001). Corresponding ranges for inhospital mortality with ICU compared with ward admission revealed odds ratios (ORs) from 0.16 (95% CI, 0.03–0.99; p = 0.04) to 4.62 (95% CI, 1.16–18.22; p = 0.02) among patients with sepsis (pooled OR = 1.48).

CONCLUSIONS: There is significant among-hospital variation in ICU admission rates for patients with sepsis not requiring life support therapies, how sensitive those ICU admission decisions are to hospital capacity strain, and the association of ICU admission with hospital LOS and hospital mortality. Hospital-level heterogeneity should be considered alongside patient-level heterogeneity in critical and acute care study design and interpretation.


National Insitute of Health (NIH)