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J Palliat Med. 2012 Jan;15(1):56-62. doi: 10.1089/jpm.2011.0307. Epub 2012 Jan 10.

Who is attending? End-of-life decision making in the intensive care unit.

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  • 1School of Nursing, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, Oregon 97239, USA.



Traditional expectations of the single attending physician who manages a patient's care do not apply in today's intensive care units (ICUs). Although many physicians and other professionals have adapted to the complexity of multiple attendings, ICU patients and families often expect the traditional, single physician model, particularly at the time of end-of-life decision making (EOLDM). Our purpose was to examine the role of ICU attending physicians in different types of ICUs and the consequences of that role for clinicians, patients, and families in the context of EOLDM.


Prospective ethnographic study in a university hospital, tertiary care center. We conducted 7 months of observations including 157 interviews in each of four adult critical care units.


The term "attending physician" was understood by most patients and families to signify an individual accountable person. In practice, "the attending physician" was an ICU role, filled by multiple physicians on a rotating basis or by multiple physicians simultaneously. Clinicians noted that management of EOLDM varied in relation to these multiple and shifting attending responsibilities. The attending physician role in this practice context and in the EOLDM process created confusion for families and for some clinicians about who was making patient care decisions and with whom they should confer.


Any intervention to improve the process of EOLDM in ICUs needs to reflect system changes that address clinician and patient/family confusion about EOLDM roles of the various attending physicians encountered in the ICU.

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