Decision tools for life support: a review and policy analysis

Crit Care Med. 2006 Mar;34(3):864-70. doi: 10.1097/01.ccm.0000201904.92483.c6.


Objective: To identify, describe, and compare published documents intended to guide decisions about the administration, withholding, or withdrawal of life support in critical care.

Design: Review article. SETTING AND SOURCES: Publicly available, English-language guidelines or decision tools for life support, identified through systematic literature search.

Measurements and main results: Forty-nine documents were included and coded for authorship, source, development methodology, format, and positions taken on 12 common life-support issues. Sources were independent academics (n=21, 43%), professional organizations (n=19, 44%), and provider organizations. Eighteen documents (37%) described no development method. Twenty-three (47%) were produced collectively (e.g., by committees or consensus conference), 7 (14%) mentioned a literature review, and 2 (4%) were based upon the author's professional experience. Tools differed in format and focus; we characterize three types as decision schemas (involving clinical practice algorithms; n=7, 14%), decision guides (reviewing legal or professional positions; n=29, 59%), and decision counsels (more discursive and focusing typically on ethical issues; n=13, 27%). Tools addressed 12 common life-support issues: advance directives (67%), resource considerations (51%), ICU discharge criteria (27%), ICU admission criteria (16%), whether withholding differs from withdrawing life support (59%), whether nutrition and hydration decisions are different from decisions about other types of life support (61%), euthanasia (49%), double effect (47%), brain death (35%), special considerations for patients in a persistent vegetative state (51%), potential organ donors (12%), and pregnant patients (10%). Positions on these key life-support issues varied.

Conclusions: Published tools for guiding life-support decisions vary widely in their genesis, authorship, format, focus, and practicality. They also differ in their attention to, and positions on, key life-support dilemmas. Future research on decision tools should focus on how users interpret and apply the messages in these tools and their impacts on practice, quality of care, participant experiences, and outcomes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Decision Support Techniques*
  • Ethics, Medical*
  • Health Policy*
  • Humans
  • Intensive Care Units
  • Life Support Care* / ethics
  • Withholding Treatment* / ethics