Withdrawing care. Experience in a medical intensive care unit

JAMA. 1994 May 4;271(17):1358-61. doi: 10.1001/jama.271.17.1358.


Objective: To describe the process and outcomes of withdrawing life-sustaining interventions in a medical intensive care unit (MICU).

Design: Retrospective case series.

Setting: Medical intensive care unit in a community teaching hospital.

Patients: Consecutive series of 28 patients in whom mechanical ventilation, dialysis, and/or vasopressors were withdrawn. We distinguished physiological, neurological, and functional rationales for care withdrawal.

Main outcome measures: Duration of discussions, MICU length of stay, and hospital survival.

Results: Mean +/- SD Acute Physiology and Chronic Health Evaluation (APACHE II) score was 27.1 +/- 7.3 on MICU admission, and average +/- SD predicted hospital mortality was 61% +/- 22%. Discussions leading to withdrawal of care occurred over an average +/- SD of 5.2 +/- 5.5 days, with decisions achieved soonest in cases with poor neurological prognosis. Average +/- SD MICU length of stay was 1.4 +/- 1.8 days following a decision to withdraw MICU care, and only four patients received more than 48 hours of additional MICU care. Four patients were discharged alive from the hospital.

Conclusions: Patients and their surrogates willingly considered outcomes in addition to mortality when considering withdrawal of life-sustaining interventions. Finding an accommodation between physician judgments and patient preferences took time and effort but was an effective means of limiting ineffective life-sustaining efforts. Withdrawing futile or unwanted care was not always fatal.

MeSH terms

  • Decision Making
  • Euthanasia, Passive* / psychology
  • Hospital Mortality
  • Hospitals, Community
  • Hospitals, Teaching
  • Humans
  • Intensive Care Units / standards
  • Length of Stay
  • Life Support Care*
  • New York
  • Outcome and Process Assessment, Health Care*
  • Patient Participation
  • Resuscitation Orders*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Risk Assessment
  • Terminal Care*
  • Withholding Treatment*