End of life in ICU--care of the dying or 'pulling the plug'?

Ir Med J. 2006 Apr;99(4):112-4.


This study, a modified subsection of the European ETHICUS study on End-of-Life (EOL) Decision Making in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), examines the pattern of limiting futile life-sustaining therapies in an Irish ICU including the practice of withdrawing mechanical ventilation in anticipation of death. 1146 patients were admitted to the Mater Hospital, Dublin ICU from 1/9/1999 to 30/6/2000 and all 126 patients who died in ICU were included. EOL categories were prospectively defined (by Ethicus methodology) as cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR); brain death; withholding (WH); withdrawing (WD) life sustaining therapy and active shortening of the dying process (SDP). Complete data were obtained for 122 of the 126 patients who died during this period. 45 patients (36%) had therapy withheld, 40 (33%) had therapy withdrawn, 26 (21%) had unsuccessful CPR and 11 (10%) were Brain Dead. SDP was not performed. In total, 85 patients had a limitation of life sustaining therapy. CPR was the main therapy withheld (96% of WH/WD patients). Inotropic infusions were limited (WH or WD) in 40/85 (47%) of patients. Fluids, feeding and oxygen were rarely withdrawn (2.4%, 6%, 4.8% respectively). Twenty-two patients had two or more EOL decisions. Tracheal extubation or withdrawal of ventilation was less frequent (16.4%) but more common if a second EOL decision was made. No patient had sedation withdrawn or decreased. Eight patients of 85 (9%) had sedation increased. The study demonstrates that EOL decision making is common (69% of deaths and 7.4% of ICU admissions) in Ireland and demonstrates that the pattern of treatment limitation relates primarily to cardiovascular and other treatments and less to respiratory life sustaining treatment. Artificial nutrition and hydration were rarely withdrawn.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Decision Making*
  • Humans
  • Intensive Care Units / statistics & numerical data*
  • Ireland
  • Life Support Care / statistics & numerical data*
  • Medical Futility
  • Middle Aged
  • Prospective Studies
  • Resuscitation Orders*
  • Terminal Care / methods*
  • Withholding Treatment / statistics & numerical data*