We determined the direct cost of an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) bed in a tertiary referral Australian ICU and the cost drivers thereof, by retrospectively analysing a number of prospectively designed Hospital- and Unit-specific electronic databases. The study period was a financial year, from 1 July 2002 to 30 June 2003. There were 1615 patients occupying 5692 fractional occupied bed days at a total cost of A dollar 15,915,964, with an average length of stay of 3.69 days (range 0.5-77, median 1.06, interquartile range 2.33). The main cost driver not incorporated into this analysis was blood products (paid for centrally). The average costs of an ICU day and total stay per patient were A dollar 2670 and A dollar 9852 respectively. Staff-related charges were 68.76%, with consumables related expenditure making up 19.65%, clinical support services 9.55% and capital equipment 2.04%. Overtime charges and nursing agency staff were 19.4% of staff-related charges (2.9% for agency staff), 3.9% lower than expenditure associated with full-time employment charges, such as pension and leave. The emergency nature of ICU means it is difficult to accurately set a nursing establishment to cater for all admissions and therefore it is hard to decide what is an acceptable percentage difference between agency/overtime costs compared with the costs associated with full-time staff appointments. Consumable expenditure is likely to increase the most with new innovation and therapies. Using protocol driven practices may tighten and control costs incurred in ICU.