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Intensive Care Med. 1993;19(6):316-22.

Trends from the United States with end of life decisions in the intensive care unit.

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  • 1Department of Medicine and Surgery, Baystate Medical Center, Springfield, Massachusetts.



To describe the changes that have occurred in the United States since medicine has moved away from a paternalistic model to one that promotes patient autonomy and self-determination. To discuss the implications for cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and the increasing use of when not to perform CPR and other life-sustaining therapies. To describe the various interpretations of the ritual term Do-Not-Resuscitate (DNR) and to introduce the concept of futility in the context of non-beneficial over-treatment and discriminatory under-treatment.


Selected clinical, philosophical and public policy literature and two illustrative case examples.


1. There is no longer a mandate to perform CPR on all dying patients, even though the Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs of the American Medical Association in 1991 said that the only restrictions should be in patients with an irreversible terminal condition or when the physician writes the order, DNR. 2. The DNR order usually requires the informed refusal of CPR by the patient or family. There is only minimal support for a unilateral decision even for patients with far advanced disease. 3. DNR is often the first step in the negotiated process of forgoing care in the ICU. There are multiple interpretations of DNR both in and outside of the ICU. 4. Health Proxy is the latest attempt to have a person clarify his/her wishes and preferences by naming a decision maker, if the individual losses mental capacity. 5. Although ethical principles seem well established, there are inconsistent interpretations and practices at the bedside in the United States in part due to the restructuring of the relationship between physicians and patients, providers and consumers/clients. 6. Objective severity scores such as Apache III, SAPS II, MPM II are generally not applicable for individual patient end-of-life decisions.


Although Health Proxy in its current formulation has been disappointing, there is a clear trend for wider application of DNR and for more active discussions about withholding or forgoing other life-sustaining therapies. DNR has a different interpretation late into the ICU course (> 72 h) than when applied at or shortly after ICU admission. Late in the ICU course, it has been decided by the medical team and family or surrogate decision maker/Health Proxy that the patient has failed or is in the process of failing aggressive ICU therapy. Early use of DNR may be related to limitations based on pre-existing chronic or subacute disease burden or an unwillingness to proceed with a full ICU course of therapy. It is unclear how Ethics Committees, risk management and hospital administrators, national practice guidelines, governmental sponsored health care reform will interface with the highly complex individual patient--physician--family--Health Proxy interface as practiced in the United States. Dialogue between the Society of Critical Care Medicine and the European Society of Critical Care Medicine and among interested physicians could provide a format for a multi-cultural context to discuss end of life issues in the ICU setting.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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