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The Boarding Patient: Effects of ICU and Hospital Occupancy Surges on Patient Flow


Patients admitted to a hospital's intensive care unit (ICU) often endure prolonged boarding within the ICU following receipt of care, unnecessarily occupying a critical care bed, and thereby delaying admission for other incoming patients due to bed shortage. Using patient-level data over two years at two major academic medical centers, we estimate the impact of ICU and ward occupancy levels on ICU length of stay (LOS), and test whether simultaneous "surge occupancy" in both areas impacts overall ICU length of stay. In contrast to prior studies that only measure total LOS, we split LOS into two individual periods based on physician requests for bed transfers. We find that "service time" (when critically ill patients are stabilized and treated) is unaffected by occupancy levels. However, the less essential "boarding time" (when patients wait to exit the ICU) is accelerated during periods of high ICU occupancy and, conversely, prolonged when hospital ward occupancy levels are high. When the ICU and wards simultaneously encounter bed occupancies in the top quartile of historical levels-which occurs 5% of the time-ICU boarding increases by 22% compared to when both areas experience their lowest utilization, suggesting that ward bed availability dominates efforts to accelerate ICU discharges to free up ICU beds. We find no adverse effects of high occupancy levels on ICU bouncebacks, in-hospital deaths, or 30-day hospital readmissions, which supports our finding that the largely discretionary boarding period fluctuates with changing bed occupancy levels.

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