The family conference as a focus to improve communication about end-of-life care in the intensive care unit: opportunities for improvement

Crit Care Med. 2001 Feb;29(2 Suppl):N26-33. doi: 10.1097/00003246-200102001-00006.


The intensive care unit (ICU) represents a hospital setting in which death and discussion about end-of-life care are common, yet these conversations are often difficult. Such difficulties arise, in part, because a family may be facing an unexpected poor prognosis associated with an acute illness or exacerbation and, in part, because the ICU orientation is one of saving lives. Understanding and improving communication about end-of-life care between clinicians and families in the ICU is an important focus for improving the quality of care in the ICU. This communication often occurs in the "family conference" attended by several family members and members of the ICU team, including physicians, nurses, and social workers. In this article, we review the importance of communication about end-of-life care during the family conference and make specific recommendations for physicians and nurses interested in improving the quality of their communication about end-of-life care with family members. Because excellent end-of-life care is an important part of high-quality intensive care, ICU clinicians should approach the family conference with the same care and planning that they approach other ICU procedures. This article outlines specific steps that may facilitate good communication about end-of-life care in the ICU before, during, and after the conference. The article also provides direction for the future to improve physician-family and nurse-family communication about end-of-life care in the ICU and a research agenda to improve this communication. Research to examine and improve communication about end-of-life care in the ICU must proceed in conjunction with ongoing empiric efforts to improve the quality of care we provide to patients who die during or shortly after a stay in the ICU.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Advance Directives
  • Communication*
  • Critical Care / methods*
  • Decision Making
  • Family / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Medical Staff, Hospital / psychology
  • Needs Assessment
  • Nursing Staff, Hospital / psychology
  • Patient Care Planning
  • Patient Selection
  • Professional-Family Relations*
  • Prognosis
  • Research
  • Terminal Care / methods*
  • Total Quality Management / organization & administration*