Impact of ethics consultations in the intensive care setting: a randomized, controlled trial

Crit Care Med. 2000 Dec;28(12):3920-4. doi: 10.1097/00003246-200012000-00033.


Objective: To determine the following: a) whether ethics consultations in the intensive care setting reduce nonbeneficial treatments, defined as days in the intensive care unit (ICU) and treatments delivered to those patients who ultimately fail to survive to hospital discharge; and b) whether physicians, nurses, social workers, and patients/families agree that ethics consultations in the ICU are beneficial in addressing treatment conflicts.

Design: Prospective, randomized, controlled trial of ethics consultations.

Setting: Medical and pediatric ICUs in a university medical center.

Patients: Seventy-four patients in whom value-based treatment conflicts arose during the course of treatment.

Interventions: The patients were randomly assigned to an intervention (ethics consultation offered) or nonintervention (ethics consultation not offered) arm of the trial.

Measurements: Medical data and ICU hospital days were compared between the intervention and control groups before and after the randomization. Likert scale and commentary responses were recorded to structured and open-ended interviews with the responsible physicians, nurses, social workers, and families of patients assigned to the intervention arm within 1 month after the patient's death or hospital discharge. Interviewees were asked whether ethics consultations helped with the following: a) to identify ethical issues; b) to analyze ethical issues; c) to resolve ethical issues; d) to educate about ethical issues; and e) to present personal views.

Main results: There were no differences in overall mortality between the control patients and patients receiving ethics consultations. However, ethics consultations were associated with reductions in ICU hospital days and life-sustaining treatments in those patients who ultimately failed to survive to discharge. Also, ethics consultations were regarded favorably by most participants.

Conclusions: Ethics consultations seem to be useful in resolving conflicts that may be inappropriately prolonging futile or unwanted treatments and are perceived to be beneficial.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Attitude to Health*
  • California
  • Conflict, Psychological
  • Critical Care / standards*
  • Critical Care / statistics & numerical data
  • Ethics Committees / standards*
  • Family / psychology*
  • Female
  • Hospital Mortality
  • Humans
  • Length of Stay / statistics & numerical data*
  • Male
  • Medical Futility
  • Middle Aged
  • Personnel, Hospital / psychology*
  • Program Evaluation
  • Prospective Studies
  • Referral and Consultation*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires