Ceilings of treatment: a qualitative study in the emergency department

BMC Emerg Med. 2019 Jan 17;19(1):9. doi: 10.1186/s12873-019-0225-6.


Background: Decision-making concerning the limitation of potentially life-prolonging treatments is often challenging, particularly in the Emergency Department (ED). Current literature in this area of Emergency Medicine is limited and heterogeneous. We seek to determine the factors that influence ceiling of treatment institution in the ED.

Methods: We conducted a phenomenological qualitative study employing semi-structured interviews. Emergency Medicine Consultants were recruited via a sample of convenience from 5 hospitals in the West of Scotland. Data saturation was achieved after 15 interviews. Interviews were recorded, anonymised, transcribed, coded, and an iterative thematic analysis was carried out.

Results: A model was created to illustrate the identified themes. Patient wishes are central to decision-making. Acute clinical factors and patient-specific factors lay the foundations of ceiling of treatment decisions. This is heavily contextualised by family input, collateral information, anticipated outcome, and whether the patient is accepted for higher care. This decision-making process flows through a 'filter' of cultural and environmental factors. The overarching nature of patient benefit was found to be of key importance, framing all aspects of ceiling of treatment institution. Ultimately, all ceiling of treatment decisions result in one of three common patient pathways: full escalation, limited escalation, and maintenance of current care with the option of palliative care initiation.

Conclusions: We present a conceptual model composed of 10 major thematic factors that influence Consultant ceiling of treatment decision-making in the ED. Clinicians should be cognizant of influential factors and associated biases when making these important and challenging decisions.

Keywords: Ceiling of treatment; Decision making; Emergency medicine; Qualitative research.

MeSH terms

  • Clinical Competence
  • Clinical Decision-Making*
  • Emergency Service, Hospital*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Patient Care*
  • Patient Preference*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Risk Assessment