System of Psychological Support Based on Positive Suggestions to the Critically Ill Using ICU Doulas

Crit Care Explor. 2021 Apr 26;3(4):e0403. doi: 10.1097/CCE.0000000000000403. eCollection 2021 Apr.


Surviving critical illness often creates a lasting psychological impact, including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress. Memories of frightening and delusional experiences are the largest potentially modifiable risk factor, but currently, there is no proven intervention to improve these inciting factors. Psychological support based on positive suggestion is a psychotherapeutic approach that can be provided even to patients in altered cognitive states and is therefore a viable psychotherapy intervention throughout the ICU stay. Traditional ICU care team members have limited time and training to provide such psychological support to patients. Doulas are trained supportive companions who have been effectively used to provide patient advocacy and emotional support in other clinical settings and may address this need. Our aim was to train and implement a psychological support based on positive suggestion program for the critically ill using doulas, and measure acceptance of this intervention through stakeholder feedback.

Methods: Doula training included three objectives: an introduction to ICU practice structure and policies; education about fundamental aspects of critical care conditions and procedures; and didactic and hands-on learning experiences in effective use of psychological support based on positive suggestion in the critically ill. Doulas were evaluated at the end of their training and during subsequent clinical activities using competency-based assessments as well as through survey-based questions and interviews with key stakeholders.

Results: The ICU doulas performed psychological support based on positive suggestion on 43 critically ill patients in the ICU setting. Stakeholder feedback from nurses, patients, and patient families was positive. The majority (28/32) of surveyed bedside ICU nurses reported that the doulas' involvement was helpful for both patients and nurses alike. All interviewed family members offered positive comments about the ICU doula presence and of the 40 patients who recalled the intervention 37 found it comforting.

Conclusions: Our program successfully trained two doulas to work effectively in the ICU setting performing patient-centered psychological support based on positive suggestion interventions. Their training improved their skill sets and was reported as beneficial by patients, families, and critical care nursing. This training program offers a proof of concept that could be applied in other medical centers, bringing doulas more commonly into the ICU practice to help humanize the experience for patients, families, and medical teams.

Keywords: critically ill; doula; early psychological support; intensive care unit doula; positive suggestion; psychological support.