End-of-life care in the intensive care unit: A patient-based questionnaire of intensive care unit staff perception and relatives' psychological response

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Communication is a hallmark of end-of-life care in the intensive care unit. It may influence the impact of end-of-life care on patients' relatives. We aimed to assess end-of-life care and communication from the perspective of intensive care unit staff and relate it to relatives' psychological symptoms.


Prospective observational study based on consecutive patients with severe sepsis receiving end-of-life care; trial registration NCT01247792.


Four interdisciplinary intensive care units of a German University hospital. Responsible health personnel (attendings, residents and nurses) were questioned on the day of the first end-of-life decision (to withdraw or withhold life-supporting therapies) and after patients had died or were discharged. Relatives were interviewed by phone after 90 days.


Overall, 145 patients, 610 caregiver responses (92% response) and 84 relative interviews (70% response) were analysed. Most (86%) end-of-life decisions were initiated by attendings and only 2% by nurses; 41% of nurses did not know enough about end-of-life decisions to communicate with relatives. Discomfort with end-of-life decisions was low. Relatives reported high satisfaction with decision-making and care, 87% thought their degree of involvement had been just right. However, 51%, 48% or 33% of relatives had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or depression, respectively. Predictors for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder were patient age and relatives' gender. Relatives' satisfaction with medical care and communication predicted less anxiety (p = 0.025).


Communication should be improved within the intensive care unit caregiver team to strengthen the involvement of nurses in end-of-life care. Improved communication between caregivers and the family might lessen relatives' long-term anxiety.

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