Physician approaches to provider-family conflict associated with end-of-life decision-making in the ICU: a qualitative study
Mehter, Hashim Moosa
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BACKGROUND: As critically ill patients approach the end of life in an intensive care unit (ICU), their families are often asked to make difficult decisions surrounding the withholding or withdrawal of aggressive care or resuscitative measures. Families are asked to exercise “substituted judgment” by making decisions from the imagined standpoint of the patient. ICU physicians work with families to support them through the decision-making process, but conflict commonly arises between physicians and family members regarding the optimal course of care for a critically ill patient. Existing qualitative data regarding physician perspectives and practical approaches to negotiating and managing these conflicts is limited. OBJECTIVE: To investigate and characterize how critical care physicians approach and manage conflict with surrogates with respect to decisions on withdrawing or withholding aggressive care in the ICU. METHODS: Semi-structured interviews were conducted with eighteen critical care physicians, recruited from two large academic medical centers in Boston. Interview transcripts were analyzed using methods of grounded theory to identify emergent themes and concepts, along with illustrative quotes. RESULTS: Physicians described an initial process of gauging surrogate receptiveness to provider input and recommendations. When faced with resistance to their recommendations for less aggressive care, provider approaches ranged from deference to family wishes to various negotiation strategies designed to change families’ minds. The likelihood of deferring to family in the event of conflict was associated with the perceived sincerity of the family’s “substituted judgment” approach and the ability of the provider to manage patient pain and suffering. Providers described a common theme of concern for the family’s emotional needs; manifestations of this concern included efforts to alleviate guilt and stress associated with end-of-life decision-making by assuming some of the decision-making burden and strategies to repair damage to the provider-family relationship in the aftermath of conflict or disagreement. Providers also described personal stress and anxiety associated with contentious end-of-life decision-making, and the effect of career experience on their approach to conflict with families. CONCLUSIONS: Critical care physicians describe a multi-layered approach to physician-family conflict surrounding end-of-life decision-making in the ICU, including adaptive strategies to achieve optimal outcomes for both patient and family. These findings may help to inform future research and quality-improvement initiatives.
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