Norms of decision making in the ICU: a case study of two academic medical centers at the extremes of end-of-life treatment intensity

Intensive Care Med. 2012 Nov;38(11):1886-96. doi: 10.1007/s00134-012-2661-6. Epub 2012 Sep 1.


Purpose: To explore norms of decision making regarding life-sustaining treatments (LSTs) at two academic medical centers (AMCs) that contribute to their opposite extremes of end-of-life ICU use.

Methods: We conducted a 4-week mixed methods case study at each AMC in 2008-2009 involving direct observation of patient care during rounds in the main medical ICU, semi-structured interviews with staff, patients, and families, and collection of artifacts (e.g., patient lists, standardized forms). We compared patterns of decision making regarding initiation, continuation, and withdrawal of LST using tests of proportions and grounded theory analysis of field note and interview transcripts.

Results: We observed 80 patients [26 (32.5 %) ≥65 years old] staffed by 4 attendings, and interviewed 23 staff and 3 patients/families at the low-intensity AMC (LI-AMC), and observed 73 patients [26 (35.6 %) ≥65 years old] staffed by 4 attending physicians and interviewed 26 staff and 4 patients/families at the high-intensity AMC (HI-AMC). LST initiation among patients over 65 was similar, except feeding tubes (0 % LI-AMC versus 31 % HI-AMC, p = 0.002). The LI-AMC was more likely to use a time-limited trial of LST, followed by withdrawal (27 vs. 8 %, p = 0.01) and to have a known outcome of death (31 vs. 4 %, p < 0.001). We identified qualitative differences in goals of LST, the determination of "dying," concern about harms of commission versus omission, and physician self-efficacy for LST decision making.

Conclusions: Time-limited trials of LST at the LI-AMC and open-ended use of LST at the HI-AMC explain some of the AMCs' nationally profiled differences in end-of-life ICU use.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Decision Making*
  • Female
  • Goals
  • Humans
  • Intensive Care Units
  • Life Support Care / statistics & numerical data*
  • Male
  • Organizational Culture
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians'*
  • Professional-Family Relations
  • Prospective Studies
  • Terminal Care*
  • United States