Limitation of life support: frequency and practice in a London and a Cape Town intensive care unit

Intensive Care Med. 1996 Oct;22(10):1020-5. doi: 10.1007/BF01699222.


Objectives: To examine the frequency of limiting (withdrawing and withholding) therapy in the intensive care unit (ICU), the grounds for limiting therapy, the people involved in the decisions, the way the decisions are implemented and the patient outcome.

Design: Prospective survey. Ethical approval was obtained.

Setting: ICUs in tertiary centres in London and Cape Town.

Patients: All patients who died or had life support limited.

Interventions: Data collection only.

Results: There were 65 deaths out of 945 ICU discharges in London and 45 deaths out of 354 ICU discharges in Cape Town. Therapy was limited in 81.5% and 86.7% respectively (p = 0.6) of patients who died. The mean ages of patients whose therapy was limited were 60.2 years and 51.9 years (p = 0.014) and mean APACHE II scores 18.5 and 22.6 (p = 0.19) respectively. The most common reason for limiting therapy in both centres was multiple organ failure. Both medical and nursing staff were involved in most decisions, which were only implemented once wide consensus had been reached and the families had accepted the situation. Inotropes, ventilation, blood products, and antibiotics were most commonly withdrawn. The mean time from admission to the decision to limit therapy was 11.2 days in London and 9.6 days in Cape Town. The times to outcome (death in all patients) were 13.2 h and 8.1 h respectively.

Conclusions: Withdrawal of therapy occurred commonly, most often because of multiple organ failure. Wide consensus was reached before a decision was made, and the time to death was generally short.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Decision Making
  • Euthanasia, Passive* / statistics & numerical data*
  • Hospitals, Urban
  • Humans
  • Intensive Care Units / statistics & numerical data*
  • Life Support Care / statistics & numerical data*
  • London
  • Middle Aged
  • Outcome Assessment, Health Care
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians'*
  • Prospective Studies
  • South Africa
  • Time Factors