We have used a remifentanil-based anaesthetic for patients undergoing major abdominal surgery who would normally have gone to the intensive care unit in this hospital. Avoiding intensive care unit admission was considered an advantage as a shortage of intensive care unit beds was leading to the cancellation of operations. We first used remifentanil as part of a safety and efficacy study. The aim was to see if the rapid and complete awakening obtained when using this drug would allow us to avoid the need for admission to an intensive care unit and use a high dependency unit instead. This was shown to be practicable. In comparison with a group of patients matched retrospectively for the type of operation before remifentanil was used there was a reduction in the length of time (mean ± SD) patients’ lungs were ventilated (612 ± 417 vs. 9.9 ± 28.9 min P<0.0001). There was no saving in cost (£808.71±£187.06 vs. £795.27±£253.49). When remifentanil was used routinely (after the safety and efficacy study), there were significant reductions in the time to tracheal extubation (612±417 vs. 4±10 min P <0.0001) and costs (808.71I vs. 392.10 I P <0.0001) compared with other patients in whom it was not used. Patients waiting for a liver transplant were also being cancelled when a donor organ became available because of the shortage of intensive care unit beds. Based on our other experience with remifentanil, we used a similar anaesthetic technique for these patients. It proved possible to extubate the trachea in 12 of 15 patients at the end of the operation. No patient needed re-intubation. The need for intensive care and therefore cancellation of surgery was reduced. In contrast, only one patient's trachea was extubated immediately after surgery in the group of patients anaesthetized before the introduction of remifentanil. A remifentanil-based technique in combination with a change in organization has therefore enabled us to avoid admission to the intensive care unit for these patients.