Why Families Get Angry: Practical Strategies for Clinical Ethics Consultants to Rebuild Trust Between Angry Families and Clinicians in the Critical Care Environment

HEC Forum. 2019 Sep;31(3):201-217. doi: 10.1007/s10730-019-09370-y.


Developing a care plan in a critical care context can be challenging when the therapeutic alliance between clinicians and families is compromised by anger. When these cases occur, clinicians often turn to clinical ethics consultants to assist them with repairing this alliance before further damage can occur. This paper describes five different reasons family members may feel and express anger and offers concrete strategies for clinical ethics consultants to use when working with angry families acting as surrogate decision makers for critical care patients. We reviewed records of consults using thematic analysis between January 2015 and June 2016. Each case was coded to identify whether the case involved a negative encounter with an angry family. In our review, we selected 11 cases with at least one of the following concerns or reasons for anger: (1) perceived or actual medical error, (2) concerns about the medical team's competence, (3) miscommunication, (4) perceived conflict of interest or commitment, or (5) loss of control. To successfully implement these strategies, clinical ethics consultants, members of the medical team, and family members should share responsibility for creating a mutually respectful relationship.

Keywords: Angry families; Family-clinician encounter; Management strategies; Physician–patient relationship; Surrogate decision making.

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Critical Care / psychology
  • Critical Care / standards
  • Ethics Consultation
  • Family / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Professional-Family Relations
  • Quality of Health Care / standards
  • Texas
  • Trust / psychology*