Objective.

Despite intense interest in allocation of resources to neonatal intensive care, no description exists of resource use by the large numbers of newborns admitted for triage, the process of short-term evaluation and management of infants after delivery. This study characterized the triage phase of neonatal care with respect to infant demographics, risk factors for illness, and the course of the hospital admission. We hypothesized that triage infants were responsible for a significant fraction of total intensive care resource utilization, and that patterns of use were predictable.

Design.

Cross-sectional cost analysis of prospectively collected data.

Participants.

Data were collected prospectively on 2486 inborn infants admitted to two neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) for <24 hours and subsequently discharged to routine care. Over the 11-month study period, these two hospitals delivered 15 097 live births and admitted a further 1837 infants for nontriage NICU care.

Interventions.

On a 50% random subsample, we calculated severity of illness using the Score for Neonatal Acute Physiology (SNAP) and applied a NICU resource checklist. Daily NICU workload was estimated according to the number and labor intensity of NICU admissions using Medicus and SNAP. Charges were obtained from patient-level item charge records and converted to costs using Medicare ratios of costs to charges. Length of stay (LOS) and costs for triage were correlated with diagnoses, perinatal descriptors, severity of illness, and markers of concurrent NICU workload using stepwise regression.

Results.

Mean birth weight for triage infants was 3367 g (standard deviation, 600 g) and mean gestational age 39.1 weeks (standard deviation, 1.8 weeks). The predominant reasons for evaluation were exclusion of sepsis (34%), birth complications including meconium aspiration, perinatal depression and trauma (24%), and transitional respiratory distress (23%). Severity illness, as measured by SNAP, was minimal, with 70% having scores of 0, indicating no derangement. Only 6% experienced depressed 5-minute Apgar scores (<7), and 80% required no delivery room resuscitation. The most frequent forms of resource use were antibiotic administration (34%), placement of a peripheral intravenous line (40%), cardiac monitoring (53%) and external warming (26%). Median LOS was 102 minutes, corresponding over the study period to 2% of total NICU hours but 7% of NICU days charged. Median cost was $870, with aggregate costs accounting for a total of 9.5% of total NICU costs. In the multivariate model, LOS was increased by respiratory diagnosis or hypoglycemia, severity of illness, lower gestational age, the need for intravenous placement, daytime shift, hospital, and lower acuity of concurrent NICU admissions (R2 = 0.24).

Conclusions.

Neonatal triage is a low-acuity but time-intensive process that contributes significantly to total resource use by newborns because of the large numbers of infants involved. Both LOS and costs are affected not only by infant medical characteristics but also by nonmedical markers of unit structure, which may be amenable to change. This source of resource consumption should be recognized in future assessments of costs associated with neonatal intensive care.

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