Admissions to American Intensive Care Units (ICUs) from hospital emergency departments are on the rise—they doubled from 2003 to 2009—and admissions among patients aged 85 and older growing the most rapidly of all: they increased 25 percent every two years. What we still don’t know is whether or when the ICU helps them. This past week, French researchers published a study in which they shed some light on the question. What they found is that ICU admission in basically high functioning people over age 75 did not improve their chance of survival—and may have made it worse. The ICU probably didn’t make any difference in their level of function or health-related quality of life six months after discharge (if they were still alive)—but there is some suggestion it caused a deterioration.
In a nutshell, what the researchers did was to come up with a standardized protocol for determining who should be admitted to the ICU, based on the particular conditions they had and how severe the conditions were. They then randomized hospitals to either use this special protocol or to rely on whatever they normally did to make decisions about ICU admission. To be eligible for the study, you had to be at least 75 years of age and at baseline, ie before you got acutely ill, you had to be independent in almost all your daily activities. When physicians used the special triage system, older patients were far more likely to be admitted to the ICU (61 percent) than when they did not (34 percent). But the death rate in the ICU, and the length of stay in the hospital were the same in the two populations. Overall hospital mortality was higher in the intervention group (30 percent) than in the controls (21 percent). Moreover, decline in independent functioning was greater at six months in the intervention group than in the controls.
What should we make of all this? I think it’s reasonable to conclude something about what we're not doing. We’re not currently depriving many older patients of care that would be beneficial for them. Maybe all those physicians who don’t admit certain elderly individuals to the ICU aren’t discriminating against them; maybe they’re on to something. What we don’t know is whether the doctors who provide “routine care,” those who use criteria other than the officially sanctioned ones for determining who gets in to the ICU, are still over-utilizing the ICU. What we don’t know, although it’s a bit implausible, is whether there are older patients who are excluded both by the seat-of-the-pants criteria and the rigorously-determined criteria, who would nonetheless benefit from a trip to the ICU.
Behind all the methodological considerations and the statistical conclusions, we have two inescapable realities: first, there are many older people who are so sick and so close to the end of life that no technology, no medication, no amount of monitoring or nursing care will keep them alive—and that’s true even for the population addressed in this study, which excluded anyone who was frail. Second, the ICU is a medical intervention, much like a drug or a procedure, and it comes with side effects. For older individuals, those side effects may outweigh any potential benefits of the intervention. So when the physician recommends the ICU for you or your older relative, think twice before agreeing.