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Healthcare Provider Perceptions of Causes and Consequences of ICU Capacity Strain in a Large Publicly Funded Integrated Health Region: A Qualitative Study

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Discrepancy in the supply-demand relationship for critical care services precipitates a strain on ICU capacity. Strain can lead to suboptimal quality of care and burnout among providers and contribute to inefficient health resource utilization. We engaged interprofessional healthcare providers to explore their perceptions of the sources, impact, and strategies to manage capacity strain.


Qualitative study using a conventional thematic analysis.


Nine ICUs across Alberta, Canada.


Nineteen focus groups (n = 122 participants).



Measurements and Main Results:

Participants’ perspectives on strain on ICU capacity and its perceived impact on providers, families, and patient care were explored. Participants defined “capacity strain” as a discrepancy between the availability of ICU beds, providers, and ICU resources (supply) and the need to admit and provide care for critically ill patients (demand). Four interrelated themes of contributors to strain were characterized (each with subthemes): patient/family related, provider related, resource related, and health system related. Patient/family-related subthemes were “increasing patient complexity/acuity,” along with patient-provider communication issues (“paucity of advance care planning and goals-of-care designation,” “mismatches between patient/family and provider expectations,” and “timeliness of end-of-life care planning”). Provider-related factor subthemes were nursing workforce related (“nurse attrition,” “inexperienced workforce,” “limited mentoring opportunities,” and “high patient-to-nurse ratios”) and physician related (“frequent turnover/handover” and “variations in care plan”). Resource-related subthemes were “reduced service capability after hours” and “physical bed shortages.” Health system–related subthemes were “variable ICU utilization,” “preferential “bed” priority for other services,” and “high ward bed occupancy.” Participants perceived that strain had negative implications for patients (“reduced quality and safety of care” and “disrupted opportunities for patient- and family-centered care”), providers (“increased workload,” “moral distress,” and “burnout”), and the health system (“unnecessary, excessive, and inefficient resource utilization”).


Engagement with frontline critical care providers is essential for understanding their experiences and perspectives regarding strained capacity and for the development of sustainable strategies for improvement.
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Keywords: bed capacity; healthcare provider; intensive care units; patient-centered care; physician-patient relations; quality

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: April 1, 2017

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