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Perceived effects of attending physician workload in academic medical intensive care units: A national survey of training program directors*

Ward, Nicholas S. MD; Read, Richard MD; Afessa, Bekele MD; Kahn, Jeremy M. MD, MSc

doi: 10.1097/CCM.0b013e318232d997
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Background: Increases in the size and number of American intensive care units have not been accompanied by a comparable increase in the critical care physician workforce, raising concerns that intensivists are becoming overburdened by workload. This is especially concerning in academic intensive care units where attending physicians must couple teaching duties with patient care.

Methods: We performed an in-person and electronic survey of the membership of the Association of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine Program Directors, soliciting information about patient workload, other hospital and medical education duties, and perceptions of the workplace and teaching environment of their intensive care units.

Results: Eighty-four out of a total 121 possible responses were received from program directors or their delegates, resulting in a response rate of 69%. The average daily (SD) census (as perceived by the respondents) was 18.8 ± 8.9 patients, and average (SD) maximum service size recalled was 24.1 ± 9.9 patients. Twenty-seven percent reported no policy setting an upper limit for the daily census. Twenty-eight percent of respondents felt the average census was “too many” and 71% felt the maximum size was “too many.” The median (interquartile range) patient-to-attending physician ratio was 13 (10–16). When categorized according to this median, respondents from intensive care units with high patient/physician ratios (n = 31) perceived significantly more time constraints, more stress, and difficulties with teaching trainees than respondents with low patient/physician ratios (n = 40). The total number of non-nursing healthcare workers per patient was similar in both groups, suggesting that having more nonattending physician staff does not alleviate perceptions of overwork and stress in the attending physician.

Conclusions: Academic intensive care unit physicians that direct fellowship programs frequently perceived being overburdened in the intensive care unit. Understaffing intensive care units with attending physicians may have a negative impact on teaching, patient care, and workforce stability.

From the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine (NSW, RR), Brown/Alpert Medical School, Providence, RI; Division of Pulmonary/Critical Care Medicine (BA), Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN; Clinical Research, Investigation and Systems Modeling of Acute Illness (CRISMA) Center (JMK), Department of Critical Care Medicine, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Department of Health Policy and Management, University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, Pittsburg, PA.

* See also p. 659.

The authors have not disclosed any potential conflicts of interest.

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© 2012 by the Society of Critical Care Medicine and Lippincott Williams & Wilkins