The myth of the workforce crisis. Why the United States does not need more intensivist physicians

Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2015 Jan 15;191(2):128-34. doi: 10.1164/rccm.201408-1477CP.


Intensivist physician staffing is associated with lower mortality in the intensive care unit (ICU), yet many ICUs are not staffed by trained intensivists. This gap has led to a number of proposals intended to increase the intensivist supply in the United States. In this perspective we argue that such efforts would be both ineffective and ill-advised. Because many ICU patients are not critically ill, workforce models that base demand projections on ICU admission rather than true critical illness substantially overstate the workforce gap. Even in the presence of a workforce gap, training new intensivists would not place them in hospitals where they are needed most, would not mitigate the shortage of nonphysician critical care providers, and would require a unrealistic increase in spending on physician training. In addition, efforts to train more intensivists require us to prioritize intensive care over other specialties that are also in short supply, without clear justification for why intensivists are more important. Rather than continuing an unwarranted push to increase the intensivist supply, we suggest alternative workforce policies that emphasize novel interprofessional care models (to improve ICU quality in the absence of intensivists) combined with limitations on the future growth of ICU beds (to reduce demand through implicit rationing of care). These policies offer opportunities to reduce the mismatch between critical care supply and demand without an unnecessary expansion of the intensivist supply.

Keywords: critical care; healthcare rationing; hospital personnel; intensive care units; patient selection.

MeSH terms

  • Critical Care*
  • Education, Medical, Graduate / economics
  • Education, Medical, Graduate / standards
  • Evidence-Based Practice / methods
  • Evidence-Based Practice / standards
  • Health Care Rationing / methods
  • Health Care Rationing / standards*
  • Health Services Misuse / economics
  • Health Services Misuse / prevention & control
  • Health Services Needs and Demand*
  • Humans
  • Intensive Care Units* / economics
  • Intensive Care Units* / statistics & numerical data
  • Patient Admission / standards
  • Patient Admission / statistics & numerical data
  • Patient Care Team / organization & administration
  • Patient Care Team / standards
  • Personnel Staffing and Scheduling
  • Physicians / supply & distribution*
  • Quality Assurance, Health Care / methods
  • Quality Assurance, Health Care / standards*
  • Regional Health Planning
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Specialization
  • Telemedicine / methods
  • Telemedicine / statistics & numerical data
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Workforce