Conflicts and communication gaps in the intensive care unit

Curr Opin Crit Care. 2010 Dec;16(6):654-65. doi: 10.1097/MCC.0b013e32834044f0.


Purpose of review: Conflicts occur frequently in the ICU. Research on ICU conflicts is an emerging field, with only few recent studies being available on intrateam and team-family conflicts. Research on communication in the ICU is developing at a faster pace.

Recent findings: Recent findings come from one multinational epidemiological survey on intrateam conflicts and one qualitative study on the causes and consequences of conflicts. Advances in research on communication with families in the ICU have improved our understanding of team-family and intrateam conflicts, thus suggesting targets for improvement.

Summary: Data about ICU conflicts depend on conflict definition, study designs (qualitative versus quantitative), patient case-mix, and detection bias. Conflicts perceived by caregivers are frequent and consist mainly in intrateam conflicts. The two main sources of conflicts in the ICU are end-of-life decisions and communication issues. Conflicts negatively impact patient safety, patient/family-centered care, and team welfare and cohesion. They generate staff burnout and increase healthcare costs. Further qualitative studies rooted in social-science theories about workplace conflicts are needed to better understand the typology of ICU conflicts (sources and consequences) and to address complex ICU conflicts that involve systems as opposed to people. Conflict prevention and resolution are complex issues requiring multimodal interventions. Clinical research in this field is insufficiently developed, and no guidelines are available so far. Prevention strategies need to be developed along two axes: improved understanding of family experience, preferences, and values, as well as evidence-based communication may reduce team-family conflicts and organizational measures including restoring leadership, multidisciplinary teamwork, and improved communication within the team may prevent intrateam conflicts in the ICU.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Communication*
  • Decision Making
  • Dissent and Disputes*
  • Family / psychology
  • Humans
  • Intensive Care Units / organization & administration*
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Leadership
  • Patient Care Team / organization & administration*
  • Patients / psychology
  • Personnel, Hospital / psychology
  • Terminal Care / psychology