Outcomes of Ethics Consultations in Adult ICUs: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

Crit Care Med. 2018 May;46(5):799-808. doi: 10.1097/CCM.0000000000002999.


Objectives: Clinical ethics consultation as a mechanism for supporting patients, family, and staff during ethically challenging situations has become standard of care. Despite this, there is a lack of consensus about the effectiveness of clinical ethics consultation consultation in the ICU. We performed a systematic review of outcomes associated with clinical ethics consultation within adult ICUs.

Data sources: We searched MEDLINE, PubMed, Cochrane CENTRAL, Embase, PsycINFO, and Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature from 1984 to May 2017.

Study selection: Two reviewers independently screened articles, assessed eligibility, extracted data, and assessed risk of bias using the Cochrane Collaboration Risk of Bias tool and the Newcastle-Ottawa Scale. Pooled estimates of effect were calculated where possible. We screened 3,970 abstracts and reviewed 325 full-text articles of which 16 met all eligibility criteria.

Data extraction: We examined changes in processes and outcomes as a result of clinical ethics consultation in the ICU. Categories of outcomes included user perception, clinical decision, or conflict resolution and resource utilization.

Data synthesis: The use of clinical ethics consultation in the ICU was associated with positive user experience (383/435 found clinical ethics consultation helpful), although stress and disagreement with clinical ethics consultation recommendations was greater in a subset (113/431 surrogates and providers). Consensus for a clinical decision was more frequently achieved with clinical ethics consultation (odds ratio, 4.09; 95% CI, 1.01-16.55; p = 0.05). Clinical ethics consultation was associated with lower resource utilization including significantly decreased ICU length of stay (mean difference, -4.65 d; 95% CI, -8.86 to -0.44; p = 0.03).

Conclusions: Our review identified outcome-based assessment as the predominant measure used to report effectiveness of clinical ethics consultation consultations. In particular, clinical ethics consultation decreased ICU length of stay and increased family and healthcare provider satisfaction. However, using outcome measures as the primary endpoint may not reflect the original intent of the clinical ethics consultation service. Based on our review, we propose a list of process measures that may better capture the key domains of a quality clinical ethics consultation.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Clinical Decision-Making / ethics
  • Ethics Consultation*
  • Humans
  • Intensive Care Units / ethics*