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CMAJ. 2007 Nov 6;177(10):1201-8. Epub 2007 Oct 31.

Perceptions of "futile care" among caregivers in intensive care units.

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  • 1Department of Ethics, London Health Sciences Centre, London, Ont.



Many caregivers in intensive care units (ICUs) feel that they sometimes provide inappropriate or excessive care, but little is known about their definition of "futile care" or how they attempt to limit its impact. We sought to explore how ICU staff define medically futile care, why they provide it and what strategies might promote a more effective use of ICU resources.


Using semi-structured interviews, we surveyed 14 physician directors, 16 nurse managers and 14 respiratory therapists from 16 ICUs across Ontario. We analyzed the transcripts using a modified grounded-theory approach.


From the interviews, we generated a working definition of medically futile care to mean the use of considerable resources without a reasonable hope that the patient would recover to a state of relative independence or be interactive with his or her environment. Respondents felt that futile care was provided because of family demands, a lack of timely or skilled communication, or a lack of consensus among the treating team. Respondents said they were able to resolve cases of futile care most effectively by improving communication and by allowing time for families to accept the reality of the situation. Respondents felt that further efforts to limit futile care should focus on educating the public and health care professionals about the role of the ICU and about alternatives such as palliative care; mandating early and skilled discussion of resuscitation status; establishing guidelines for admission to the ICU; and providing legal and ethical support for physicians who encounter difficulties. There was a broad consistency in responses among all disciplines.


ICU physicians, nurses and respiratory therapists have similar and well-formed opinions about how to define and resolve medically futile care and where to focus future efforts to limit the impact of futile care in the ICU.

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