Background: Intensive care units (ICUs) exist to support patients through acute illness that threatens their life. Although ICUs aim to save life, they are also a place where a significant proportion of patients die with international mortality rates ranging from 15% to 24%.
Aim: To explore the experience of relatives and staff of patients dying in ICU using qualitative approach.
Design: Consecutive patients were identified who were dying in the ICU. The researcher met the families prior to the patient’s death. The ICU nurse and doctor most involved were interviewed within 48 h of the death. The families were interviewed 2 weeks later. Interviewees described their experience of the patient’s dying and death. Recruitment until data saturation and thematic analysis occurred concurrently.
Results: Ten families, nurses and doctors were interviewed in relation to 10 patients. In caring for the patients who are dying in the ICU and their families, nurses practice to their satisfaction with creativity and autonomy, although concerned about continuity of care at handover. Families appreciate kindness and regular sensitive communication. Families would like more contact with the ICU doctors. Limiting access to the patient according to ICU protocol is distressing for relatives. Doctors struggle with decision making, determining prognosis and witnessing the grief of relatives. Some doctors wish to have a greater part in care of the dying patient.
Conclusion: Distress among nurses reported in the ICU literature and attributed to disenfranchisement by doctors was not evident. In contrast, some doctors struggle to practice what they value. Adherence to ICU protocols needs flexibility when a patient is dying.