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01.12.2018 | Research | Ausgabe 1/2018 Open Access

Critical Care 1/2018

Indicators of intensive care unit capacity strain: a systematic review

Critical Care > Ausgabe 1/2018
Oleksa G. Rewa, Henry T. Stelfox, Armann Ingolfsson, David A. Zygun, Robin Featherstone, Dawn Opgenorth, Sean M. Bagshaw
Wichtige Hinweise

Electronic supplementary material

The online version of this article (https://​doi.​org/​10.​1186/​s13054-018-1975-3) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.



Strained intensive care unit (ICU) capacity represents a fundamental supply-demand mismatch in ICU resources. Strain is likely to be influenced by a range of factors; however, there has been no systematic evaluation of the spectrum of measures that may indicate strain on ICU capacity.


We performed a systematic review to identify indicators of strained capacity. A comprehensive peer-reviewed search of MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, Cochrane Library, and Web of Science Core Collection was performed along with selected grey literature sources. We included studies published in English after 1990. We included studies that: (1) focused on ICU settings; (2) included description of a quality or performance measure; and (3) described strained capacity. Retrieved studies were screened, selected and extracted in duplicate. Quality was assessed using the Newcastle-Ottawa Quality Assessment Scale (NOS). Analysis was descriptive.


Of 5297 studies identified in our search; 51 fulfilled eligibility. Most were cohort studies (n = 39; 76.5%), five (9.8%) were case-control, three (5.8%) were cross-sectional, two (3.9%) were modeling studies, one (2%) was a correlational study, and one (2%) was a quality improvement project. Most observational studies were high quality. Sixteen measures designed to indicate strain were identified 110 times, and classified as structure (n = 4, 25%), process (n = 7, 44%) and outcome (n = 5, 31%) indicators, respectively. The most commonly identified indicators of strain were ICU acuity (n = 21; 19.1% [process]), ICU readmission (n = 18; 16.4% [outcome]), after-hours discharge (n = 15; 13.6% [process]) and ICU census (n = 13; 11.8% [structure]). There was substantial heterogeneity in the operational definitions used to define strain indicators across studies.


We identified and characterized 16 indicators of strained ICU capacity across the spectrum of healthcare quality domains. Future work should aim to evaluate their implementation into practice and assess their value for evaluating strategies to mitigate strain.

Systematic review registration

This systematic review was registered at PROSPERO (March 27, 2015; CRD42015017931).
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