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World J Diabetes. 2017 February 15; 8(2): 40–44.
Published online 2017 February 15. doi:  10.4239/wjd.v8.i2.40
PMCID: PMC5320747

Diabetic ketoacidosis: Treatment in the intensive care unit or general medical/surgical ward?


Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) is defined as an acute metabolic disorder, which is characterized by an increased presence of circulating ketones, and the development of ketoacidosis in the presence of hyperglycemia. This syndrome occurs as a result of insulin deficiency. Patients can be dramatically ill, however, with aggressive treatment, most patients recover rapidly. Despite being a low-risk condition, the development of acidosis, is one of the admission criteria to the intensive care unit (ICU) for these patients, in order to provide close monitoring, and recognize complications that could result from the use of aggressive therapy, such as continuous infusions if insulin. In some institutions, DKA is treated in the emergency department and general medical/surgical wards to avoid ICU overcrowding.

Keywords: Diabetic ketoacidosis, Diabetes, Hyperosmolar non-ketotic state, Clinical outcomes, Serum ketones

Core tip: Diabetic ketoacidosis is a complication for some patients with insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus as well as for non-insulin dependent. It is treated commonly in the intensive care unit (ICU), even though clinical data from many studies support management in regular (medical/surgical) wards, avoiding expensive critical care unit costs and preventing bed crisis in these higher level of care units for sicker patients. Once the patient is treated, adequate follow up and education is mandatory. Noncompliance remains the primary concern for repeated admissions.


Patients with diabetes mellitus (DM) have health care costs 2.3 times higher than others without this diagnosis[1]. In a prevalence-based study, by the American Diabetes Association, in the United States in 2012, the total cost for diagnosed DM was $245 billion United States dollars, and of it, $176 billion was used for direct medical care costs[1]. In addition, and even more concerning, is the fact that hospitalizations for patients with DM have being increasing[2]. The National Surveillance of Diabetes Public Health Resources, reported that diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) admissions increased from 80000/year in 1988 to 140000/year in 2009[2].

DKA causes an acute metabolic disorder, which is primarily characterized by an increased presence of circulating ketone bodies, and the development of severe ketoacidosis in the presence of prolonged uncontrolled hyperglycemia, usually due to insulin deficiency[3]. It is more commonly seen in patients with insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM), especially among children and young adults. Occasionally, patients with insulin resistant DM can present this complication; especially those that are noncompliant with insulin therapy or who present severe infection[3]. DKA has arbitrarily been classified by some as mild, moderate and severe, according to the initial diagnostic criteria (which includes plasma glucose, arterial pH, serum bicarbonate, urine and serum ketones, serum osmolality and anion gap; and the alteration in the mental status)[4].


In 2012, 29.1 million Americans or 9.3% of the population were estimated to suffer from DM, according to the American Diabetes Association and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention[2]. Of them, approximately 1.25 million American children and adults have IDDM. This clinical condition has a cumulative incidence of 1.4 million Americans per year and it remains the 7th leading cause of death in the United States since 2010[2]. As noted above, the number of cases of DKA has steadily increased over the past 2 decades[2,3]. In one study in the United States, DKA presentations to the emergency department (ED) increased 35% from 1996 to 2006[3]. When compared to other countries like England, Austria and Germany, the United States has the highest rates of DKA in children with IDDM[5]. Mortality rates for patients with hyperglycemic syndromes (DKA and hyperosmolar non-ketotic states) have been reported as 0.02% in patients with diabetes who are 45 years or younger, and 0.014% among older adults[6]. In some studies, the average length of stay in the hospital for patients with DKA has decreased from 5.7 to 3.4 d, being longer for patients categorized in the “severe” group[2,7]. In the authors’ experience, some patients can even be discharged within 23 h of hospital admission despite an initial severe acidemia.


In many institutions, and for decades, DKA has been routinely treated in ICU environments, including recommendations by the American Diabetes Association guidelines for DKA treatment[3,4,7-9]. The primary reason for these level of care requirements, has been the presence of severe metabolic acidosis, even if patients are grouped as mild or moderate in severity[10]. Frequent blood glucose monitoring, the need for intravenous insulin infusions, and the requirement of frequent vital signs is cited as the hospital structural requirements for this ICU level of care[11]. However, several studies have shown that DKA can be safely treated in the ED or even in medical wards (Table (Table11)[12-17]. By taking this lower level of care approach, we can potentially avoid ICU hospitalization rate and higher costs, bed overcrowding and reserving the beds for patients who present complications such as hypotension, coma, acute myocardial ischemia, or those with several comorbidities (i.e., end-stage renal disease, congestive heart failure) and anyone categorized as suffering severe DKA[12,18,19]. In some observational studies DKA patients admitted to the ICU have a shorter length of stay when compared to non-diabetic mellitus ICU patients[20,21]. A recent retrospective cohort study of 156, 842 hospitalizations among 94 acute-care hospitals, analyzed the adjusted cost of hospitalizations in lower and higher ICU utilizations groups, and concluded that the overuse of ICU only increases the cost and the utilization of invasive procedures but with no improvement in hospital mortality[22].

Table 1
Clinical trials comparing care in the intensive care unit vs the emergency department or medical ward for patients with diabetic ketoacidosis

In a prospective, randomized clinical trial in India, Karoli and coworkers reported that once the DKA patient is evaluated in the ED, and categorized in the severity score, direct admission to a regular ward provided no additional mortality and the only complication noted was hypoglycemia. Other groups have used other classifications to allocate resources for patients with DKA[15]. In a retrospective study, Marinac and Mesa, using laboratory criteria (serum bicarbonate, anion gap, base excess and serum osmolality), and diastolic blood pressure, patients were grouped in 5 grades (Grade 0 - IV)[19]. ICU admission was recommended only for those who had grade IV DKA[19] (Table (Table22).

Table 2
List of conditions requiring admission of patients with diabetic ketoacidosis in the intensive care unit


The treatment of acute DKA includes restoration of fluid deficits in the first 24 to 36 h, electrolyte replacement and insulin therapy, which is administered slowly to decreased plasma glucose[23,24]. As noted above, a few randomized, open label trials have proved good outcome and non-inferiority for patients who are managed on regular medical/surgical wards while using with rapid acting insulin, aspart or lispro[13,15,17,25-29].

By establishing a rapid diagnosis and starting treatment in the ED, clinicians can help patients to decrease their costs and hospital stay.

The primary issue in patients with DKA remains the need for repeated hospital admissions. Non-compliance in these patients makes the outcome and prognosis worst. Indeed, medical non-compliance and adherence to the outpatient treatment is the most common precipitating factor leading to the development of moderate-to-severe DKA, requiring ICU admission secondary to complications (i.e., cerebral edema, sepsis) and making the management in the ED and/or ICU very complex[21,25,30]. Life-support care, such as mechanical ventilation, vasopressors, intravenous antibiotic therapy and mortality rates are higher in these patients, when compared to patients not requiring these interventions[30].


The benefit of ICU level of care for patients with DKA rather than regular medical/surgical wards is not well established for patients with mild-to-moderate DKA. Many studies suggest the utilization of the ED or the regular (medical/surgical) wards in the management of these patients. There is significant cost-benefit in managing DKA in the ED and regular wards instead of the ICU, where only patients that require life-supportive intervention should go. Once patients are discharged from the hospital adequate follow up is necessary to avoid readmissions and assure compliance.


Conflict-of-interest statement: None of the authors have any conflict to disclose.

Manuscript source: Invited manuscript

Specialty type: Endocrinology and metabolism

Country of origin: United States

Peer-review report classification

Grade A (Excellent): 0

Grade B (Very good): B, B

Grade C (Good): C

Grade D (Fair): 0

Grade E (Poor): 0

Peer-review started: August 16, 2016

First decision: September 28, 2016

Article in press: November 22, 2016

P- Reviewer: Al-Haggar M, Rabus SA, Tzamaloukas AH S- Editor: Ji FF L- Editor: A E- Editor: Wu HL


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