End-of-life family conferences: Rooted in the evidence

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Critical care clinicians no longer consider family members as visitors in the intensive care unit. Family-centered care has emerged from the results of qualitative and quantitative studies evaluating the specific needs of families of patients dying in the intensive care unit. In addition, interventional studies have established that intensive and proactive communication empowers family members of dying patients, helping them to share in discussions and decisions, if they so wish. In addition to intensive communication, interventional studies have highlighted the role of nurses, social workers, and palliative care teams in reducing family burden, avoiding futile life-sustaining therapies, and providing effective comfort care. End-of-life family conferences are formal, structured meetings between intensivists and family members. Guidelines for organizing these conferences take into account the specific needs of families, including reassurance that the patient’s symptoms will be adequately managed; honest clear information about the patient’s condition and treatment; a willingness on the part of physicians to listen and respond to family members and to address their emotions; attention to patient preferences; clear explanations about surrogate decision making; and continuous, compassionate, and technically proficient attention to the patient’s needs until death occurs. Means of improving end-of-life care have been identified in epidemiologic and interventional studies. End-of-life family conferences constitute the keystone around which excellent end-of-life care can be built.

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