Intensive Care Harmful in Elderly Patients

An intervention to promote use of intensive care in elderly patients (over age 75) was evaluated in a cluster RCT of 20 French hospitals.[1] The intervention worked in the narrow sense that it did increase the rate of admission to the intensive care unit (ICU) (by nearly 70%). But did this result in improved survival? Not at all – in fact there was a statistically significant increase in death rates in the hospitals randomised to have lower thresholds for ICU care; both in hospital (18% increase) and at 6 months (16% increase). So a conservative policy dominates – it is both less expensive and more effective in old people. But this paper should make one think – how effective is ICU for other groups of patients? Apart from looking after people who need a breathing machine, is ICU really an effective treatment at all? It is highly invasive and intrusive. I am not a therapeutic nihilist, but one does have to wonder. Perhaps we should design a less intensive form of intensive care? Such an approach could be evaluated in RCTs before advocating global use of the current standard ICU model in high-income countries. Let me annoy my colleagues by proposing a hypothesis. ICU types think that it is the monitoring and fiddling with vital signs that saves lives. I think the main effect is better diagnosis – because patients are scrutinised carefully by highly trained people, conditions are spotted that would otherwise be missed. Just a thought!

I would like to thank News Blog reader Gus Hamilton for drawing my attention to this article.

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director

Reference:

  1. Guidet B, Leblanc G, Simon T, et al. Effect of Systematic Intensive Care Unit Triage on Long-term Mortality Among Critically Ill Elderly Patients in France: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 2017; 318(15): 1450-9.
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