Objectives: The quality of family-clinician communication in the intensive care unit is often inadequate, but little is known about specific clinician communication behaviors that might improve family satisfaction. In this exploratory analysis, we hypothesized that clinicians' communication behaviors providing emotional support to families during intensive care unit conferences would be associated with increased family satisfaction.
Design: We audiotaped 51 intensive care unit family conferences in which withholding or withdrawing life support was discussed or bad news was delivered. Emotional support techniques used by clinicians during each conference were identified and coded using grounded theory.
Setting: Four Seattle hospitals.
Subjects: Family members of critically ill patients.
Interventions: Questionnaires rating satisfaction with communication were completed by 169 family members.
Measurements and main results: Linear regression with generalized estimating equation methods was used to analyze the association between the frequency of clinicians' emotionally supportive statements and family satisfaction. Increasing frequency of three types of clinicians' statements during family conferences was associated with increased family satisfaction: a) assurances that the patient will not be abandoned before death (p=.015); b) assurances that the patient will be comfortable and will not suffer (p=.029); and c) support for family's decisions about end- of-life care, including support for family's decision to withdraw or not to withdraw life-support (p=.005).
Conclusions: Most family members participating in this study were quite satisfied with the communication in the family conferences. Specific clinician communication behaviors are associated with increased family satisfaction during family conferences among family members who are willing to have a family conference recorded. Our results suggest that clinicians in the intensive care unit may improve the experiences of families of critically ill patients by providing explicit support for decisions made by a family with regard to end-of-life care and by assuring families continuity of high-quality care with particular attention to the patient's comfort.