Ethics and end-of-life care for adults in the intensive care unit

Lancet. 2010 Oct 16;376(9749):1347-53. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(10)60143-2. Epub 2010 Oct 11.


The intensive care unit (ICU) is where patients are given some of the most technologically advanced life-sustaining treatments, and where difficult decisions are made about the usefulness of such treatments. The substantial regional variability in these ethical decisions is a result of many factors, including religious and cultural beliefs. Because most critically ill patients lack the capacity to make decisions, family and other individuals often act as the surrogate decision makers, and in many regions communication between the clinician and family is central to decision making in the ICU. Elsewhere, involvement of the family is reduced and that of the physicians is increased. End-of-life care is associated with increased burnout and distress among clinicians working in the ICU. Since many deaths in the ICU are preceded by a decision to withhold or withdraw life support, high-quality decision making and end-of-life care are essential in all regions, and can improve patient and family outcomes, and also retention of clinicians working in the ICU. To make such a decision requires adequate training, good communication between the clinician and family, and the collaboration of a well functioning interdisciplinary team.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Communication
  • Decision Making
  • Humans
  • Intensive Care Units* / ethics
  • Interdisciplinary Communication
  • Patient Admission
  • Professional-Family Relations
  • Resource Allocation
  • Terminal Care* / ethics
  • Withholding Treatment