Contradictions and communication strategies during end-of-life decision making in the intensive care unit

Hsiu Fang Hsieh, Sarah E. Shannon, J. Randall Curtis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Scopus citations


Purpose: The aim of this study was to identify inherent tensions that arose during family conferences in the intensive care unit, and the communication strategies clinicians used in response. Materials and methods: We identified 51 clinician-family conferences in the intensive care unit from 4 hospitals in which the attending physician believed discussion of withdrawing life-sustaining treatments or delivery of bad news would occur. The communication between clinicians and family members was analyzed using a dialectic perspective. Results: The tension of choosing whether to "let the patient die now" versus to "not let the patient die now" was the central contradiction within the conferences. Under this overriding theme were 5 categories: killing or allowing to die; death as a benefit or a burden; honoring the patient's wishes or following the family's wishes; weighing contradictory versions of the patient's wishes; and choosing an individual family member as decision maker or the family as a unit as decision maker. In response to these contradictions, clinicians used 2 clusters of communication strategies: decision-centered strategies and information-seeking strategies. Conclusions: This study offered insights into end-of-life decision making, prompting clinicians to be conscious of the contradictions that arise and to use specific strategies to address these contradictions in their communication with families.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)294-304
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Critical Care
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2006
Externally publishedYes


  • Communication
  • Critical care
  • End-of-life care
  • Intensive care
  • Palliative care
  • Withdrawal of life support

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Critical Care and Intensive Care Medicine


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