The right size for a PICU: is bigger always better?
I’ve worked in several PICUs over the years. Some were as large as 36 beds (which counts as pretty large in the PICU world), and some were as small as 4 beds. Inevitably, larger PICUs can offer services that smaller ones cannot. This is particularly the case with more specialized services, like some kinds of surgery and access to super-specialists. When I’ve been in a smaller unit, there have been times when I’ve needed to transfer children to a larger one so they could get these more esoteric services. When I’ve been in a larger unit, I’ve received transfers of kids like that. Would these children who needed transfer have been better off going to the larger PICU in the first place?
The dilemma for smaller PICUs is that they can never become as experienced in caring for children with rare conditions, and it is hard for someone working in one of the smaller units to keep their skill levels up. Research has shown, not surprisingly, that physicians who do the same thing a lot are better at doing it than physicians who don’t do it so often. On the other hand, transferring a child from a local, smaller PICU to a bigger one is often hard on families, since often the larger unit is in another city — sometimes in another state. And many PICU problems can be handled just fine in a smaller place, nearer to home.
The process of transferring a critically ill child — by ambulance, helicopter, or airplane — carries risks, too. These risks are not just those inherent in traffic or flight. I can tell you from personal experience that no matter how much supplies and equipment you bring on the transport, you still can’t recreate a PICU. And the simple working environment of a transport vehicle, especially a helicopter, is cramped and noisy — far from optimal. So sometimes a critically ill child is safer staying where they are, at least until they can be made more stable.
What to do? As pediatric intensivists, we are sort of feeling our way as we figure this out. Most smaller PICUs have formal or informal relationships with larger units to which they can send children they cannot handle. But these relationships are a patchwork across the nation — we simply don’t know the ideal size for a PICU. When PICUs began several decades ago they were rare, found only in large children’s hospitals. In those days people’s expectations were different about what smaller community hospitals needed to provide. In today’s world, we believe all children should have access to the same life-saving PICU care. So smaller hospitals began to open PICUs to provide that care as best they could. Someday PICU care may be truly regionalized, with formal relationships between big and small units in the region, complete with standardized criteria for appropriate care at one unit or the other. We don’t have anything like that yet.
What parents should realize is that there are differences between what a smaller and a larger PICU can do. If your child has a particularly unusual or difficult problem, it is never inappropriate to ask your child’s doctor if transfer to a larger unit makes sense.