Physician Approaches to Conflict with Families Surrounding End-of-Life Decision-making in the Intensive Care Unit. A Qualitative Study

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Abstract

Rationale:

Families of critically ill patients are often asked to make difficult decisions to pursue, withhold, or withdraw aggressive care or resuscitative measures, exercising “substituted judgment” from the imagined standpoint of the patient. Conflict may arise between intensive care unit (ICU) physicians and family members regarding the optimal course of care.

Objectives:

To characterize how ICU physicians approach and manage conflict with surrogates regarding end-of-life decision-making.

Methods:

Semistructured interviews were conducted with 18 critical care physicians from four academically affiliated hospitals. Interview transcripts were analyzed using methods of grounded theory.

Results:

Physicians described strategies for engaging families to resolve conflict about end-of-life decision-making and tending to families' emotional health. Physicians commonly began by gauging family receptiveness to recommendations from the healthcare team. When faced with resistance to recommendations for less aggressive care, approaches ranged from deference to family wishes to various persuasive strategies designed to change families' minds, and some of those strategies may be counterproductive or harmful. The likelihood of deferring to family in the event of conflict was associated with the perceived sincerity of the family's “substituted judgment” and the ability to control patient pain and suffering. Physicians reported concern for the family's emotional needs and made efforts to alleviate the burden on families by assuming decision-making responsibility and expressing nonabandonment and commitment to the patient. Physicians were attentive to repairing damage to their relationship with the family in the aftermath of conflict. Finally, physicians described their own emotional responses to conflict, ranging from frustration and anxiety to satisfaction with successful resolution of conflict.

Conclusions:

Critical care physicians described a complex and multilayered approach to physician-family conflict. The reported strategies offer insight into pragmatic approaches to achieving resolution of conflict while attending to both family and physician emotional impact, and they also highlight some potentially unhelpful or harmful behaviors that should be avoided. Further research is needed to evaluate how these strategies are perceived by families and other ICU clinicians and how they affect patient, family, and clinician outcomes.

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