Communication with patients in intensive care units: a scoping review

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Patients in intensive care units are generally more conscious and alert when they are on mechanical ventilation than in previous years because of the many potential benefits of being under less sedation. The endotracheal tube blocks the vocal cords when patients are on ventilation, thus making it impossible to speak. Many patients report that they struggle to make themselves understood.


The aim of this study was to assess previous knowledge about interaction and communication between health care personnel and conscious and alert patients under mechanical ventilation in intensive care units.

Design and methods

A literature review was performed following the steps of a scoping review. Studies published between 1998 and 2017 were identified in several databases: Cinahl, Embase, Medline, PsycINFO and Scopus. The first search returned 7386 unique references. The inclusion criteria consisted of empirical studies or studies related to interactions between health care personnel and patients over 18 years of age on mechanical ventilation. The relevant studies were summarized in a standardized data-charting sheet.


The inclusion criteria were met by 46 articles; 16 were qualitative studies, 17 were quantitative, 6 were mixed-methods studies, and 7 were pilot or feasibility studies. Of the studies, 37 were from nurses, 4 from physicians, 4 from speech language pathologists and 1 from psychologists. The most common topics investigated in the studies were ‘experiences with communication on mechanical ventilation’ and ‘communication exchanges’.


A variety of communication aids that appear to have some effect on patients should be made available in intensive care units. More multidisciplinary approaches in future studies could enhance the knowledge in the field.

Relevance to clinical practice

The education of intensive care unit personnel in the use of such aids should be a prioritized field, as should be the implementation of a variety of communication aids.

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