The majority of patients who die in hospital have a “Do Not Resuscitate” (DNR) order in place at the time of their death, yet we know very little about why some patients request or agree to a DNR order, why others don’t, and how they view discussions of resuscitation status.
We conducted semi-structured interviews of English-speaking medical inpatients who had clearly requested a DNR or full code (FC) order after a discussion with their admitting team, and analyzed the transcripts using a modified grounded-theory approach.
We achieved conceptual saturation after conducting 44 interviews (27 DNR, 17 FC) over a 4-month period. Patients in the DNR group were much older than those in the FC group, but they had broadly similar admission diagnoses and comorbidities. DNR patients reported much greater familiarity with the subject and described a more positive experience than FC patients with their resuscitation discussions. Participants typically requested FC or DNR orders based on personal, relational or philosophical considerations, but these considerations manifested differently depending on the participant’s preference for resuscitation. Most FC patients stated that would not want a prolonged period of life support, and they would not want resuscitation in the event of a poor quality of life. FC and DNR patients understood resuscitation and DNR orders differently. DNR patients described resuscitation in graphic, concrete terms that emphasized suffering and futility, and DNR orders in terms of comfort or natural processes. FC patients understood resuscitation in an abstract sense as something that restores life, while DNR orders were associated with substandard care or even euthanasia.
Our study identified important differences and commonalities between the perspectives of DNR and FC patients. We hope that this information can be used to help physicians better understand the needs of their patients when discussing resuscitation.
Many caregivers in intensive care units (ICUs) feel that they sometimes provide inappropriate or excessive care, but little is known about their definition of “futile care” or how they attempt to limit its impact. We sought to explore how ICU staff define medically futile care, why they provide it and what strategies might promote a more effective use of ICU resources.
Using semi-structured interviews, we surveyed 14 physician directors, 16 nurse managers and 14 respiratory therapists from 16 ICUs across Ontario. We analyzed the transcripts using a modified grounded-theory approach.
From the interviews, we generated a working definition of medically futile care to mean the use of considerable resources without a reasonable hope that the patient would recover to a state of relative independence or be interactive with his or her environment. Respondents felt that futile care was provided because of family demands, a lack of timely or skilled communication, or a lack of consensus among the treating team. Respondents said they were able to resolve cases of futile care most effectively by improving communication and by allowing time for families to accept the reality of the situation. Respondents felt that further efforts to limit futile care should focus on educating the public and health care professionals about the role of the ICU and about alternatives such as palliative care; mandating early and skilled discussion of resuscitation status; establishing guidelines for admission to the ICU; and providing legal and ethical support for physicians who encounter difficulties. There was a broad consistency in responses among all disciplines.
ICU physicians, nurses and respiratory therapists have similar and well-formed opinions about how to define and resolve medically futile care and where to focus future efforts to limit the impact of futile care in the ICU.
During the past few years the ethics sections of critical care societies have proposed a number of policies describing the goals of intensive care unit (ICU) care and providing broad guidance on the diagnoses and physiological criteria that would mandate using the specialized skill and technologies of an ICU environment. Discussions on what constitutes appropriate use of such scarce resources, incorporating cultural and religious beliefs and exploring how they interact with these medical criteria, remain vague. To date, these policies do not provide any definitive guidance in the difficult decision making faced by clinicians. Some argue that they were never meant to do so and yet they have served to guide the development of local hospital policies. Many have explored how critical care services are allocated without achieving consensus on the best way to achieve fair and equitable access to life-sustaining interventions. A consensus is needed though, one that is reflective of both individual and societal values and goals. Otherwise, increasing pressure to provide treatments with marginal benefits at best will threaten the ability of others to access treatments that may offer them very real benefits.
The recent outbreaks of avian influenza (H5N1) have placed a renewed emphasis on preparing for an influenza pandemic in humans. Of particular concern in this planning is the allocation of resources, such as ventilators and antiviral medications, which will likely become scarce during a pandemic.
We applied a collaborative process using best evidence, expert panels, stakeholder consultations and ethical principles to develop a triage protocol for prioritizing access to critical care resources, including mechanical ventilation, during a pandemic.
The triage protocol uses the Sequential Organ Failure Assessment score and has 4 main components: inclusion criteria, exclusion criteria, minimum qualifications for survival and a prioritization tool.
This protocol is intended to provide guidance for making triage decisions during the initial days to weeks of an influenza pandemic if the critical care system becomes overwhelmed. Although we designed this protocol for use during an influenza pandemic, the triage protocol would apply to patients both with and without influenza, since all patients must share a single pool of critical care resources.
As a number of commentators have noted, SARS exposed the vulnerabilities of our health care systems and governance structures. Health care professionals (HCPs) and hospital systems that bore the brunt of the SARS outbreak continue to struggle with the aftermath of the crisis. Indeed, HCPs – both in clinical care and in public health – were severely tested by SARS. Unprecedented demands were placed on their skills and expertise, and their personal commitment to their profession was severely tried. Many were exposed to serious risk of morbidity and mortality, as evidenced by the World Health Organization figures showing that approximately 30% of reported cases were among HCPs, some of whom died from the infection. Despite this challenge, professional codes of ethics are silent on the issue of duty to care during communicable disease outbreaks, thus providing no guidance on what is expected of HCPs or how they ought to approach their duty to care in the face of risk.
In the aftermath of SARS and with the spectre of a pandemic avian influenza, it is imperative that we (re)consider the obligations of HCPs for patients with severe infectious diseases, particularly diseases that pose risks to those providing care. It is of pressing importance that organizations representing HCPs give clear indication of what standard of care is expected of their members in the event of a pandemic. In this paper, we address the issue of special obligations of HCPs during an infectious disease outbreak. We argue that there is a pressing need to clarify the rights and responsibilities of HCPs in the current context of pandemic flu preparedness, and that these rights and responsibilities ought to be codified in professional codes of ethics. Finally, we present a brief historical accounting of the treatment of the duty to care in professional health care codes of ethics.
An honest and critical examination of the role of HCPs during communicable disease outbreaks is needed in order to provide guidelines regarding professional rights and responsibilities, as well as ethical duties and obligations. With this paper, we hope to open the social dialogue and advance the public debate on this increasingly urgent issue.
Disaster management plans have traditionally been required to manage major traumatic events that create a large number of victims. Infectious diseases, whether they be natural (e.g. SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] and influenza) or the result of bioterrorism, have the potential to create a large influx of critically ill into our already strained hospital systems. With proper planning, hospitals, health care workers and our health care systems can be better prepared to deal with such an eventuality. This review explores the Toronto critical care experience of coping in the SARS outbreak disaster. Our health care system and, in particular, our critical care system were unprepared for this event, and as a result the impact that SARS had was worse than it could have been. Nonetheless, we were able to organize a response rapidly during the outbreak. By describing our successes and failures, we hope to help others to learn and avoid the problems we encountered as they develop their own disaster management plans in anticipation of similar future situations.
The intensive care unit (ICU) is a nexus for interspecialty and interdisciplinary tensions because of its pivotal role in the care of the hospital's most critically ill patients and in the management of critical care resources. In an environment charged with temporal, financial and professional tensions, learning how to get results collaboratively is a critical aspect of professional competence. This study explored how team members in the ICU interact to achieve daily clinical goals, delineate professional boundaries and negotiate complex systems issues.
Seven 1-hour focus groups were conducted with ICU team members in two hospitals. Participants consisted of four nursing groups (n = 27), two resident groups (n = 6) and one intensivist group (n = 4). Interviews were audio-recorded, anonymized and transcribed. With the use of a standard qualitative approach, transcripts were analyzed iteratively for recurrent themes by four researchers.
Team members articulated their perceptions of the mechanisms by which team collaboration was achieved or undermined in a complex and high-pressure context. Two mechanisms were recurrently described: the perception of 'ownership' and the process of 'trade'. Analysis of these mechanisms reveals how power is commodified, possessed and exchanged as team members negotiate their daily needs and goals with one another.
Our data provide a non-idealized depiction of how health care professionals function on a team so as to meet both individual and collective goals. We contend that the concept of 'team' must move beyond the rhetoric of 'cooperation' and towards a more authentic depiction of the skills and strategies required to function in the competitive setting of the interprofessional health care team.
collaboration; conflict; interdisciplinary communication; medical care team
Explores effects of quarantine on those quarantined for SARS, Toronto, Canada
As a transmissible infectious disease, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was successfully contained globally by instituting widespread quarantine measures. Although these measures were successful in terminating the outbreak in all areas of the world, the adverse effects of quarantine have not previously been determined in a systematic manner. In this hypothesis-generating study supported by a convenience sample drawn in close temporal proximity to the period of quarantine, we examined the psychological effects of quarantine on persons in Toronto, Canada. The 129 quarantined persons who responded to a Web-based survey exhibited a high prevalence of psychological distress. Symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression were observed in 28.9% and 31.2% of respondents, respectively. Longer durations of quarantine were associated with an increased prevalence of PTSD symptoms. Acquaintance with or direct exposure to someone with a diagnosis of SARS was also associated with PTSD and depressive symptoms.
SARS; quarantine; post–traumatic stress disorder; depression
During the recent global outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), thousands of patients received treatments of uncertain efficacy and known toxicity such as ribavirin and corticosteroids. Despite this, no controlled clinical trials assessing the efficacy of these agents were conducted. If a second global SARS outbreak occurred, clinicians would not have controlled data on which to base therapeutic decisions. We discuss the unique methodologic and logistical challenges faced by researchers who attempt to conduct controlled trials of therapeutic agents during an outbreak of a novel or unknown infectious pathogen. We draw upon our own experience in attempting to conduct a randomized controlled trial (trial) of ribavirin therapy for SARS and discuss the lessons learned. Strategies to facilitate future clinical trials during outbreaks of unknown or novel pathogens are also presented.
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome; randomized controlled trials; disease outbreaks
Most hospitals are facing the dilemma caused by demand for critical care beds outstripping supply. This imbalance is likely to get worse over the coming years as a result of many factors, including aging of the population, improved technology, and improved therapies, among other factors. As a result we are likely to have to make further tough decisions about rationing of this service. In this issue of Critical Care, two authors debate the appropriateness of providing life support in accordance with a family's wishes to an individual who is unlikely to survive admission to the intensive care unit. Understanding both sides of this debate is an important aspect of an intensivist's job.
critical care; end of life; futility; mechanical ventilation; treatment decisions
The recent SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak exploded on an unsuspecting public and functionally paralyzed health care delivery systems in many countries. Cancer treatments were deferred and elective surgeries, clinic visits and diagnostic tests were postponed. Other collateral damage includes the devastating psychological distress suffered by patients who were isolated from their families, those same families who could not visit their ill loved ones, patients awaiting access to various aspects of the health care system, and health care workers. We are all starting to dig out, and this process will take many months at a minimum and we may never completely return to the way we were. This commentary addresses the implications of a modern-day epidemic like SARS, focusing on the intensive care unit setting, with special attention given to the effect on health care workers. We explore some of the ethical challenges posed to relationships, professional integrity and resource allocation.
critical care; ethical issues; intensive care unit; SARS
Intensivists must provide enough analgesia and sedation to ensure dying patients receive good palliative care. However, if it is perceived that too much is given, they risk prosecution for committing euthanasia. The goal of this study is to develop consensus guidelines on analgesia and sedation in dying intensive care unit patients that help distinguish palliative care from euthanasia.
Using the Delphi technique, panelists rated levels of agreement with statements describing how analgesics and sedatives should be given to dying ICU patients and how palliative care should be distinguished from euthanasia. Participants were drawn from 3 panels: 1) Canadian Academic Adult Intensive Care Fellowship program directors and Intensive Care division chiefs (N = 9); 2) Deputy chief provincial coroners (N = 5); 3) Validation panel of Intensivists attending the Canadian Critical Care Trials Group meeting (N = 12).
After three Delphi rounds, consensus was achieved on 16 statements encompassing the role of palliative care in the intensive care unit, the management of pain and suffering, current areas of controversy, and ways of improving palliative care in the ICU.
Consensus guidelines were developed to guide the administration of analgesics and sedatives to dying ICU patients and to help distinguish palliative care from euthanasia.
Palliation; Death; Sedation; Analgesia; Double effect; Terminal sedation; Euthanasia; Assisted suicide; Consensus guidelines; Intensive Care
This pro/con debate explores the ethical issues surrounding nonheart-beating organ donation (NHBD), a source of considerable controversy. It is estimated that NHBD can increase the number of organs available for transplant by 25% at a time of great need. However, should NHBD be ethically acceptable? In support of NHBD, it may be acceptable practice if there is a separation of the rationale to withdraw life support/to withhold cardiopulmonary resuscitation from the decision to recover organs, if no conflicts of interest exist, if a waiting time precluding spontaneous return of circulation is included, and if NHBD conforms to a standardized protocol. Against NHBD, there are questions regarding the ambiguity and cultural perspectives of death, regarding whether a separation of rationale between withdrawal and donation is sufficient to preclude conflicts of interest, and regarding whether variable protocols arise that subordinate the patient to the goal of donation. Such concerns suggest NHBD may damage the trust in patient–physician relationships and may adversely affect organ donation rates.
bioethics; critical care; death; nonheart-beating organ donation; organ donation
death; end of life; intensive care; palliative care
Attempts to improve survival demand that intensivists practice at the forefront of technology. In the present millennium, ethical challenges will arise during the development and use of emerging therapeutics, and when helping patients and families to decide how these tools should be used in the context of individual and societal goals, values and beliefs. The future of critical care depends on our abilities to think critically through the ethical challenges posed by the exciting therapeutics that draw us to the field. In the coming months, Critical Care Forum will explore the ethical issues that so profoundly affect our ability to provide meaningful health care.
bioethics; critical care; education; research ethics