The opportunity cost of futile treatment in the ICU*

Crit Care Med. 2014 Sep;42(9):1977-82. doi: 10.1097/CCM.0000000000000402.


Objective: When used to prolong life without achieving a benefit meaningful to the patient, critical care is often considered "futile." Although futile treatment is acknowledged as a misuse of resources by many, no study has evaluated its opportunity cost, that is, how it affects care for others. Our objective was to evaluate delays in care when futile treatment is provided.

Design: For 3 months, we surveyed critical care physicians in five ICUs to identify patients that clinicians identified as receiving futile treatment. We identified days when an ICU was full and contained at least one patient who was receiving futile treatment. For those days, we evaluated the number of patients waiting for ICU admission more than 4 hours in the emergency department or more than 1 day at an outside hospital.

Setting: One health system that included a quaternary care medical center and an affiliated community hospital.

Patients: Critically ill patients.

Interventions: None.

Measurements and main results: Boarding time in the emergency department and waiting time on the transfer list. Thirty-six critical care specialists made 6,916 assessments on 1,136 patients of whom 123 were assessed to receive futile treatment. A full ICU was less likely to contain a patient receiving futile treatment compared with an ICU with available beds (38% vs 68%, p < 0.001). On 72 (16%) days, an ICU was full and contained at least one patient receiving futile treatment. During these days, 33 patients boarded in the emergency department for more than 4 hours after admitted to the ICU team, nine patients waited more than 1 day to be transferred from an outside hospital, and 15 patients canceled the transfer request after waiting more than 1 day. Two patients died while waiting to be transferred.

Conclusions: Futile critical care was associated with delays in care to other patients.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Critical Care / organization & administration*
  • Critical Care / statistics & numerical data*
  • Health Care Rationing / organization & administration
  • Health Care Rationing / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Intensive Care Units / organization & administration*
  • Intensive Care Units / statistics & numerical data*
  • Medical Futility*
  • Patient Admission / statistics & numerical data
  • Patient Transfer
  • Time Factors
  • Waiting Lists