"Futile" care: do we provide it? Why? A semistructured, Canada-wide survey of intensive care unit doctors and nurses

J Crit Care. 2005 Sep;20(3):207-13. doi: 10.1016/j.jcrc.2005.05.006.


Purpose: To qualitatively explore the process of the provision of futile care in Canadian intensive care units (ICUs).

Materials and methods: A mailed, semistructured survey was sent to medical and nursing unit directors of all Canadian ICUs, asking them to estimate the frequency of provision of futile care, when care becomes "futile," the reasons such care is provided, and the resources that are available to help make end-of-life decisions. Nurse/physician agreement was assessed by chi(2) analysis or Fisher exact test. Content analysis to identify common themes was carried out by 4 raters using a Delphi process.

Results: The response rate was 72%. The majority reported futile therapy had been provided in their ICU over the last year (nurses, "N"=95%, physicians, "P"=87%, P=.02). The most commonly stated reasons for providing futile care were family request (N=91%, P=91%, P=NS) and attending physician request (N=91%, P=87% P=NS). Physicians were cited to provide futile care because of prognostic uncertainty (N=73%, P=84%, P=.047) and legal pressures (N=84%, P=75%, P=NS). Comment review revealed 8 main reasons why futile care was provided, the most common of which were that "death was perceived as treatment failure," and poor provider-family communication. Few providers were aware of societal (N=26%, P=51%) or local (22%, all) guidelines relating to the provision of futile care, but of those who were aware, the majority found these useful (range, 73%-74%). Twenty-seven percent expressed the need for someone to discuss difficult ethical issues, such an individual with ethics training specifically assigned to the ICU.

Conclusions: Caregivers voice the opinion that provision of futile care occurs, for multiple reasons, not the least of which is provider-driven. Nurses and physicians of Canadian ICUs perceive the need for increased availability of more ICU-directed and ethically trained resources to help them in providing end-of-life care.

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Canada
  • Communication
  • Ethics, Clinical
  • Humans
  • Intensive Care Units / organization & administration*
  • Liability, Legal
  • Medical Futility* / ethics
  • Medical Staff, Hospital* / ethics
  • Medical Staff, Hospital* / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Nursing Staff, Hospital* / ethics
  • Nursing Staff, Hospital* / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Professional-Patient Relations