BACKGROUND:

Increased admissions of higher birth weight and less acutely ill infants to NICUs suggests that intensive care may be used inappropriately in these populations. We describe variation in use of NICU services by gestational age and NICU type.

METHODS:

Using the Vermont Oxford Network database of all NICU admissions, we assessed variation within predefined gestational age categories in the following proportions: admissions, initial NICU hospitalization days, high-acuity cases ≥34 weeks’ gestation, and short-stay cases ≥34 weeks’ gestation. High acuity was defined as follows: death, intubated assisted ventilation for ≥4 hours, early bacterial sepsis, major surgery requiring anesthesia, acute transport to another center, hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy or a 5-minute Apgar score ≤3, or therapeutic hypothermia. Short stay was defined as an inborn infant staying 1 to 3 days with discharge from the hospital.

RESULTS:

From 2014 to 2016, 486 741 infants were hospitalized 9 657 508 days at 381 NICUs in the United States. The median proportions of admissions, initial hospitalized days, high-acuity cases, and short stays varied significantly by NICU types in almost all gestational age categories. Fifteen percent of the infants ≥34 weeks were high acuity, and 10% had short stays.

CONCLUSIONS:

There is substantial variation in use among NICUs. A campaign to focus neonatal care teams on using the NICU wisely that addresses the appropriate use of intensive care for newborn infants and accounts for local context and the needs of families is needed.

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