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A history of resolving conflicts over end-of-life care in intensive care units in the United States*

Luce, John M. MD, FCCM

doi: 10.1097/CCM.0b013e3181e71530
Feature Articles

Objectives: To present a case of conflict over end-of-life care in the intensive care unit (ICU) and to describe how such conflicts have been resolved in the United States since the inception of ICUs.

Data Sources: A nonsystematically derived sample of published studies and professional and lay commentaries on end-of-life care, ethical principles, medical decision-making, medical futility, and especially conflict resolution in the ICU.

Study Selection: Some of those studies and commentaries dealing specifically with conflicts over end-of-life care in the ICU and their resolution.

Data Synthesis: An historical review of conflict resolution over end-of-life issues in U.S. ICUs.

Results and Conclusions: Conflict at the end of life in ICUs in the United States is relatively rare because most families and physicians agree about how patients should be treated. Nevertheless, conflict still exists over some patients whose families insist on care that physicians consider inappropriate and hence inadvisable, and over other patients whose families object to care that physicians prefer to provide. When such conflict occurs, mediation between families and physicians is usually successful in resolving it. Consultation from ethics committees also may be helpful in achieving resolution, and one state actually allows such committees to adjudicate disputes. Physicians who act unilaterally against family wishes run the risk of malpractice suits, although such suits usually are unsuccessful because the physicians are not shown to have violated standards of care.

From the Departments of Medicine and Anesthesia, University of California, San Francisco, and San Francisco General Hospital, San Francisco, CA.

The author has not disclosed any potential conflicts of interest.

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© 2010 by the Society of Critical Care Medicine and Lippincott Williams & Wilkins