To examine the prevalence, nature, causes, and consequences of suboptimal care before admission to intensive care units, and to suggest possible solutions. Prospective confidential inquiry on the basis of structured interviews and questionnaires. A large district general hospital and a teaching hospital. A cohort of 100 consecutive adult emergency admissions, 50 in each centre. Opinions of two external assessors on quality of care especially recognition, investigation, monitoring, and management of abnormalities of airway, breathing, and circulation, and oxygen therapy and monitoring. Assessors agreed that 20 patients were well managed (group 1) and 54 patients received suboptimal care (group 2). Assessors disagreed on quality of management of 26 patients (group 3). The casemix and severity of illness, defined by the acute physiology and chronic health evaluation (APACHE II) score, were similar between centres and the three groups. In groups 1, 2, and 3 intensive care mortalities were 5 (25%), 26 (48%), and 6 (23%) respectively (P=0.04) (group 1 versus group 2, P=0.07). Hospital mortalities were 7 (35%), 30 (56%), and 8 (31%) (P=0.07) and standardised hospital mortality ratios (95% confidence intervals) were 1.23 (0.49 to 2.54), 1.4 (0.94 to 2.0), and 1.26 (0.54 to 2.48) respectively. Admission to intensive care was considered late in 37 (69%) patients in group 2. Overall, a minimum of 4.5% and a maximum of 41% of admissions were considered potentially avoidable. Suboptimal care contributed to morbidity or mortality in most instances. The main causes of suboptimal care were failure of organisation, lack of knowledge, failure to appreciate clinical urgency, lack of supervision, and failure to seek advice. The management of airway, breathing, and circulation, and oxygen therapy and monitoring in severely ill patients before admission to intensive care units may frequently be suboptimal. Major consequences may include increased morbidity and mortality and requirement for intensive care. Possible solutions include improved teaching, establishment of medical emergency teams, and widespread debate on the structure and process of acute care.