A new study finds staff shortages could halve Australia's ICU surge capacity.

Researchers say Australia has fewer open intensive care unit (ICU) beds with accompanying staff than it did in 2020.

Surveying ICU directors across the country, researchers from the University of WA have found 2,183 currently available ICU beds, 8.2 per cent fewer than a year ago. 

However, “the shortage of ventilators in 2020 has been more than overcome”, the study found.

“ICU capacity can be expanded if required, but the availability of staff, particularly critical care nurses, imposes limits,” they say.

“The availability of resources varies markedly both within and between states and territories.”

The team surveyed ICU directors or senior clinicians from all 194 ICUs in Australia. 

They found that the total number of currently open staffed ICU beds was 2,183, 195 fewer (8.2 per cent) than in 2020; the decline was greater for rural/regional (18 per cent) and private ICUs (18 per cent). 

The reported maximal ICU bed capacity (5,623) included 813 additional physical ICU bed spaces and 2,627 “surge areas” outside ICUs. 

The number of available ventilators (7,196) exceeded the maximum number of ICU beds. 

However, the reported available number of additional nursing staff would facilitate the immediate opening of 383 additional physical ICU beds (47 per cent), but not the additional bed spaces outside ICUs.

“Estimated additional staffing needs were based on the ability to expand ICU capacity for one month only, but this increased capacity could be required for much longer,” research leader Associate Professor Edward Litton and colleagues wrote.

“The sustainability of pre-pandemic staffing levels and traditional staffing models under these conditions is uncertain.

“ As early as April 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was associated with substantial psychological distress, including anxiety and burnout, among Australian health care workers.

“Ensuring healthy and sustainable staffing models should be a health policy priority that urgently requires further consideration, both for the short and longer terms.

“Planning to act on operational problems in matching ICU resources and capacity to demand is essential,” they concluded.

The full report is accessible here.