Effect of ethics consultations on nonbeneficial life-sustaining treatments in the intensive care setting: a randomized controlled trial

JAMA. 2003 Sep 3;290(9):1166-72. doi: 10.1001/jama.290.9.1166.


Context: Ethics consultations increasingly are being used to resolve conflicts about life-sustaining interventions, but few studies have reported their outcomes.

Objective: To investigate whether ethics consultations in the intensive care setting reduce the use of life-sustaining treatments delivered to patients who ultimately did not survive to hospital discharge, as well as the reactions to the consultations of physicians, nurses, and patients/surrogates.

Design: Prospective, multicenter, randomized controlled trial from November 2000 to December 2002.

Setting: Adult intensive care units (ICUs) of 7 US hospitals representing a spectrum of institutional characteristics.

Patients: Five hundred fifty-one patients in whom value-related treatment conflicts arose during the course of treatment.

Interventions: Patients were randomly assigned either to an intervention (ethics consultation offered) (n = 278) or to usual care (n = 273).

Main outcome measures: The primary outcomes were ICU days and life-sustaining treatments in those patients who did not survive to hospital discharge. We examined the same measures in those who did survive to discharge and also compared the overall mortality rates of the intervention and usual care groups. We also interviewed physicians and nurses and patients/surrogates about their views of the ethics consultation.

Results: The intervention and usual-care groups showed no difference in mortality. However, ethics consultations were associated with reductions in hospital (-2.95 days, P =.01) and ICU (-1.44 days, P =.03) days and life-sustaining treatments (-1.7 days with ventilation, P =.03) in those patients who ultimately did not survive to discharge. The majority (87%) of physicians, nurses, and patients/surrogates agreed that ethics consultations in the ICU were helpful in addressing treatment conflicts.

Conclusion: Ethics consultations were useful in resolving conflicts that may have inappropriately prolonged nonbeneficial or unwanted treatments in the ICU.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Critical Care / ethics*
  • Ethics Consultation*
  • Ethics, Clinical
  • Humans
  • Intensive Care Units / ethics
  • Length of Stay
  • Medical Futility
  • Patient Care Planning*
  • Patient Care Team
  • Prospective Studies
  • United States