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J Palliat Med. 2011 Jun;14(6):791-5. doi: 10.1089/jpm.2010.0313. Epub 2011 Feb 3.

Listening to the voiceless patient: case reports in assisted communication in the intensive care unit.

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  • 1Department of Acute & Tertiary Care, University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15261, USA.


Communication problems experienced by nonspeaking, critically ill patients in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) have serious implications for the physical and psychological well-being of patients and the quality of their care. These problems are most profound for those with prolonged critical illnesses who are at the highest risk of dying. Recently, speech language pathologist (SLP) services have been used to provide augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) assistance to this vulnerable group of patients, their caregivers, and medical staff. Here we present three clinical cases that illustrate the application of AAC strategies across different levels of illness severity and communication impairment for nonspeaking patients in the ICU. Both high-tech communication devices with voice output and low-tech options were used for each patient according to their motor and cognitive abilities. To accommodate fluctuations in patient status and communication needs, multiple AAC strategies were integrated into the communication repertoire and tailored for each case. Medical personnel involved in these cases attributed enhanced communication efficiency, improved ventilator weaning trials, and increased patient engagement to the AAC techniques. This approach has the potential to improve symptom communication and to ease suffering for seriously ill ICU patients with speech limitations.

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