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Death in Trauma: The Role of the ACNP in Patient Advocacy and Familial Support in End-of-Life Care Decision-Making

Barndt, Stephanie, N., MSN, CRNP, AGACNP-BC, CEN

doi: 10.1097/JTN.0000000000000363
Advanced Practice

The trauma acute care nurse practitioner (ACNP) participates in the care of critically-ill patients by utilizing his or her advanced clinical skills at the bedside and through communication with the interdisciplinary team, the patient, and the patient's family. Although the incidence of morbidity is decreasing in trauma, death can occur shortly after arrival to hospital, or in the days after initial injury, leading to the need for the unexpected conversation of end-of-life wishes with a patient or the patient's family. It is within the scope of the ACNP to facilitate these conversations, and it is recommended that ACNPs engage patients and their families in these conversations for overall improved patient outcomes. Many techniques exist to aid in this difficult decision-making process and may be useful to the trauma ACNP when having end-of-life discussions.

Department of Medicine, Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, Philadelphia, and Paoli Hospital, Paoli, Pennsylvania.

Correspondence: Stephanie N. Barndt, MSN, CRNP, AGACNP-BC, CEN, Department of Medicine, Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, 51 N. 39th Street, Wright-Saunders W128, Philadelphia, PA 19104 (

Supplemental digital content is available for this article. Direct URL citations appear in the printed text and are provided in the HTML and PDF versions of this article on the journal's Web site (

The author declares no conflict of interest.

In the acute care hospital setting, the interdisciplinary care team is faced with challenges on a daily basis and must respond to any abrupt changes in a patient's condition. Often, the course of a hospitalization for one patient is unpredictable and involves frequent communication between the patient, the family, and members of the care team to achieve positive outcomes. Trauma surgery is a multifaceted specialty that requires collaboration between nursing staff, physicians, and therapists. With the diverse needs in trauma surgery, from specialized procedures, to critical care management, to evaluation of discharge planning needs, acute care nurse practitioners (ACNPs) are being utilized in the care of these patients as a resource for their expanded nursing scope and expertise in understanding holistic patient care. Although the inherent goal of trauma surgery is to “fix the problem” and save the life of a patient, traumatic injuries are often devastating and life altering, affecting all age groups and both relatively “healthy” patients as well as patients with numerous comorbidities. Neither patients nor their loved ones are able to anticipate a traumatic injury, thus making traumatic events complex situations to handle and only further demonstrating the need for ACNPs as team members in this field.

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In the occasional unpredicted patient care trajectory that occurs in trauma, the provider must discuss a patient's wishes for medical intervention with the patient and the patient's family, so long as the patient approves of this, or in the instance of the unresponsive patient. The stress surrounding critical care management weighs heavily on patients and their families, making for an even more difficult experience in the decision-making process. ACNPs are uniquely beneficial to the high-stress and sensitive situations that arise, because they are required to have a background in bedside critical care nursing. As a member of the trauma team, the trauma ACNP should be utilized in the decision-making process for medical intervention and end-of-life decision-making in this critically-ill patient population, because he or she has both the advanced knowledge of the traumatic disease process in addition to finessed communication and education techniques that can potentially guide the patient and the family to an informed decision regarding this delicate subject. This article discusses the value of utilizing the ACNP in end-of-life care planning for the trauma patient, as well as decision-making techniques that may benefit the ACNP when facilitating these discussions.

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The trauma ACNP participates in multiple settings, from the emergency department and critical care units, to the operating room, to medical–surgical units and outpatient offices. This designation is determined per a specific hospital or facility, and as a result, the ACNP's clinical skills vary based on the needs of that setting (Lafferty, 2011 ; Sherwood, Price, White, Stevens, & Van Boerum, 2009). Examples of common competencies of the trauma ACNP include completing history and physicals, prescribing medications, laboratory and diagnostic testing interpretation, central line and chest tube insertion, and suturing wounds. In addition to varied clinical responsibilities and an expansive practice scope, the trauma ACNP also participates in rounding on patients and discharge planning, as well as collaborates with physicians and other interdisciplinary team members (Lafferty, 2011 ; Sherwood et al., 2009). The utilization of specialized trauma ACNPs has shown to improve patient outcomes overall by decreasing lengths of stay, decreasing rates of complications, and improving patient satisfaction through clear discussion of plan of care and overall open communication (Lome, Stalnaker, Carlson, Kline, & Sise, 2010 ; Morris et al., 2012 ; Noffsinger, 2014 ; Sherwood et al., 2009).

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As of 2014, approximately 2.3 million people were admitted to hospital for traumatic injury, with 192,000 dying from trauma (National Trauma Institute, 2016). Leading mechanisms of unintentional injury included motor vehicle crashes, falls, and poisonings. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, trauma is the leading cause of death for adults aged 18–46 years, and ranks in the top three leading causes of death in the United States for all age groups (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014). Timing of death can be categorized according to its relationship to the initial injury: death immediately following the injury, death within 24 hr after admission to hospital, and death days to weeks following the initial injury. The incidence of “late death,” or that occurring greater than 24 hr after the initial insult, has decreased over time from 20% to approximately 9% (Sobrino & Shafi, 2013). Although the end goal is always to save a life in trauma, death is not entirely preventable and remains rather prevalent, only further demonstrating the need for ACNPs to undertake the role of assisting in medical intervention and end-of-life decision-making with the seriously injured trauma patient.

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Review of Literature

Numerous studies have demonstrated the benefits of including ACNPs as members of the trauma team, not only because of their broad skill set but also for their successful patient care statistics. According to reviews by Fry (2011) , Lome et al. (2010), and Sherwood et al. (2009), ACNPs have achieved a reduction in hospital length of stay, readmission rates, infection rates, and morbidity and mortality among the patients they care for. As a result, patient satisfaction increases whereas hospital costs decrease (Fry, 2011). Morris et al. (2012) and Sherwood et al. (2009) found, respectively, that both unit-based and trauma ACNPs provide clearly delineated continuity of care in light of reduction of resident work hours. Walter and Curtis (2015) specifically describe trauma nurse practitioners as accomplishing these same standards of care set forth by their institutions and meeting expectations for improved patient outcomes. Additional traits that are noted as unique to the abilities of the trauma ACNP include attention to detail, organization, and flexibility in the work environment (Lome et al., 2010). Trauma nurse practitioners have noticeably acquired the advanced skills that are required in the care of the trauma patient, while cohesively working with the trauma team and delivering expert care that is well-recognized by both patients and their colleagues (Fry, 2011 ; Lome et al., 2010 ; Sherwood et al., 2009 ; Walter & Curtis, 2015).

With their required critical care background, trauma ACNPs are prepared to participate in difficult conversations with patients and families. As previously discussed, decisions surrounding medical interventions and end-of-life care can cause additional stress for conscious and alert patients, as well as their loved ones. The setting of a traumatic injury creates a layer of stress in the case of the trauma patient, as these events occur unexpectedly and therefore act as an obstacle when the health team needs to determine patient and familial wishes. Barriers to facilitating a successful conversation surrounding end-of-life care discussions exist, including inadequate time to hold the conversation or rather, having a discussion about end-of-life when the patient's condition suddenly deteriorates; a misunderstanding between primary and consulting providers on the patient's prognosis; the lack of a trusting relationship between the patient/family and the provider; the lack of presence of the whole care team or family designated as proxy; and a general level of discomfort with initiation of such delicate conversation (Aslakson et al., 2012 ; Cooper et al., 2016 ; Gordy & Klein, 2011). The greatest barrier, as perceived by providers who must initiate end-of-life care discussions, is a lack of patient or family understanding of prognosis (Hajizadeh, Uhler, & Perez Figueroa, 2014). According to Kryworuchko, Strachan, Nouvet, Downar, and You (2016), there are other influencing factors that can create a more stressful decision-making process for necessity of medical interventions and end-of-life wishes. Some examples of these perceptions that might impede a successful conversation include viewing death as a failure (both the patient and the health practitioner), needing to process all of the facts surrounding the patient's prognosis, and achieving true consensus among the patient, family, and health care team. The ACNP must consider these barriers and findings when attempting to have these difficult conversations with patients and loved ones. Most importantly, health care providers must initiate a trusting relationship by being openly communicative, even when that means sharing uncertainty about a patient's illness or recovery from an injury (Billings, 2011 ; Fridh, 2014 ; Gordy & Klein, 2011 ; Kryworuchko et al., 2016). It is difficult to completely standardize the feelings patients and their loved ones may have on this topic; however, taking an unbiased approach and having an idea of some potential patient and family perceptions of the situation might allow for a more successful and productive conversation.

Current evidence establishes the degree of difficulty that providers are met with when holding conversations about goals of care or end-of-life wishes with patients and their families (Cooper et al., 2016). Attempting to initiate a discussion around goals of care at the time of admission can improve later decision-making by laying groundwork for the course of hospitalization, without setting unrealistic expectations in case the patient's condition suddenly changes (Aslakson et al., 2012 ; Belanger et al., 2014 ; Billings, 2011 ; Gordy & Klein, 2011). If there is a drastic change in a patient's condition, practitioners can turn to the initial goals laid out by the patient and the family as a starting point when new decisions must be made (Turnbull, Sahetya, & Needham, 2016). At times, medical intervention and advanced care planning decisions are left to the patient's family, who are often in distress related to the gravity of the current situation. Having a trained member of the health care team acting as the liaison for communicating between the family and health practitioners may benefit the family's psyche and overall distress related to decision-making (Curtis et al., 2016 ; Fridh, 2014 ; Milic et al., 2015). ACNPs, having a critical care background and potential experiences as the bedside nurse related to end-of-life, have the opportunity to develop therapeutic techniques necessary to effectively communicate with patients and their families in these delicate scenarios, and have already proven their ability to improve patient satisfaction with their delivery of care (Fry, 2011 ; Lome et al., 2010 ; Sherwood et al., 2009 ; Walter & Curtis, 2015).

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Implications for Practice

Although the illness trajectory of each trauma patient is usually patient specific, the ACNP is readily prepared to act on behalf of the trauma team in guiding patients and their family members through shared decision-making, especially when discussing end-of-life care. The trauma ACNP has an understanding of the advanced pathophysiology involved with traumatic illness and the pharmacology necessary to treat said illnesses. Through open and effective communication, the ACNP can explore any psychosocial considerations surrounding the patient's care, and in using certain communicative techniques, the ACNP can then provide guidance for ethical and shared decision-making for the critically-ill trauma patient.

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The ACNP's Scope in End-of-Life Care Planning

According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, one of the competencies of the ACNP is preparation in end-of-life discussions and advance care planning (McRee & Reed, 2016). The range of the ACNPs clinical skills, from advanced procedural techniques and management of high-acuity patients, to advanced communication skills and engagement in health promotion initiatives, demonstrates the diversity in ACNP educational preparedness and readiness for facilitating such difficult discussions (Lafferty, 2011 ; Sherwood et al., 2009). Unfortunately, many barriers exist that contribute to maintaining a “gray area” in which ACNPs fall for recognition of their professional ability to participate in end-of-life care planning. Across the United States, nurse practitioners are lobbying for full autonomy practice in the majority of states. In addition, ACNPs work in numerous hospital environments where hospital-level polices do not clearly recognize the role of the ACNP in end-of-life decision-making, and although this skill is an educational competency, limited formal continuing education exists for ACNPs to master this clinical skill (Dube, McCarron, & Nannini, 2015 ; DuBois, & Reed, 2014 ; McRee & Reed, 2016). Overall, the literature suggests limited findings on the ACNP's involvement in advance care planning and clinical outcomes associated with ACNP-led discussions (Dube et al., 2015). However, nurse practitioners, specifically working in both the acute care and hospice settings, as well as with cancer patients, have shown through multiple studies that they have contributed to improved emotional and mental quality-of-life measures for these patients by engaging them and their families in these important conversations (Dyar, Lesperance, Shannon, Sloan, & Colon-Otero, 2012 ; DuBois & Reed, 2014 ; McRee & Reed, 2016). So far, the literature has indicated that if provided adequate education on end-of-life conversations, the bedside intensive care unit nurse could act as the liaison or patient advocate when included in discussions between providers and critically-ill patients and their families (Fridh, 2014 ; Milic et al., 2015). When coupling prior experiences as the bedside critical care nurse with the advanced knowledge obtained when becoming an ACNP, the trauma ACNP is able to engage patients and their families in end-of-life decision-making conversations, while keeping in mind the whole patient, and with the intent to benefit the patient's clinical outcome.

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Strategies for Guiding Decision-Making

When initiating a difficult conversation, such as establishing goals of care or advanced care planning, the ACNP might utilize communication techniques or develop a strategy to outline the conversation so that patients and their families have a clear understanding of the purpose of the conversation, and that all might reach a consensus in the patient's care. Simple conversational principles, such as eye contact, allowing for pauses, and asking the patient or family to summarize what was said, are basic means that can ensure patient/family comfort with the ACNP and understanding of prognosis or treatment options (Cooper et al., 2016). The ACNP should consider outlining the topics needed to be discussed in such a conversation, from delivering the patient's prognosis and summarizing the patient's status, to reviewing goals of care and providing recommendations, and finally, offering patient and familial support. Overall, developing such a concise outline is useful not only to the ACNP but also to the patient and the family when such critical information is communicated (Cooper et al., 2016).

Certain approaches to shared decision-making that have been applied in other areas may be used when attempting to guide conversations with trauma patient (see the Supplemental Digital Content, Table A1, available at:, especially when discussing advanced care planning. In a study implemented by Myers et al. (2016), patients diagnosed with prostate cancer were provided with a decision support intervention (in written format) reviewing treatment options. This tool, which also included contact information for a nurse liaison as a resource for questions, allowed these patients to engage in their care and provide them with the necessary information about treatment modalities to increase their knowledge base while decreasing anxiety and stress surrounding diagnosis (Myers et al., 2016). Although this format is not readily applicable to the world of trauma, having a liaison such as the ACNP for answering questions and allowing open discussion would better facilitate the necessary conversation regarding end-of-life wishes. Another study by Curtis et al. (2016) demonstrated the successful use of a “communication facilitator” to prevent poor communication between health care providers and families, which causes more distress when already coping with the critical illness of a loved one. This further validates that this often-empty role can be filled by the trauma ACNP. Additional survey reveals the need to establish goals of care with patients and their families as well as thorough explanation of invasive, life-sustaining procedures to ensure that any medical intervention does not go against the wishes of the patient or family members, if they are speaking on behalf of the patient (Turnbull et al., 2016). In a differing approach, Allen et al. (2017) implemented inclusion of family members in patient rounds in the intensive care unit, which proved to be successful in effective communication among the health care team with patients and family members and increased patient and family satisfaction with care. Through the establishment of the trauma ACNP as a resource for effective communication between the health care team and the patient or patient's family, the trauma team will be able to set realistic goals for patient care and thus lead to a positive outcome for care delivered.

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The ACNP's Role in Guiding Decision-Making: A Summary

As integrated clinical members of the trauma team, ACNPs contribute their combined skill set of critical care knowledge and advanced care techniques with their unique ability to establish an open relationship with patients and their families. Having already learned to engage patients and families in their care as bedside nurses results in their innate ability to effectively communicate a plan of care and establish trust with patients and families when difficult questions are asked regarding illness trajectory (Fridh, 2014 ; Milic et al., 2015). ACNPs would encourage active involvement of families in the care of their loved one through participation in rounds (Allen et al., 2017) and establish goals of care, which unfortunately means cure is not possible 100% of the time, but creating open and meaningful dialogue helps patients and families better understand and make informed decisions (Aslakson et al., 2012 ; Gordy & Klein, 2011 ; Kryworuchko et al., 2016). Despite all interventions and efforts made by the trauma team, death remains a prevalent outcome of traumatic injury. Before approaching a patient or a family to discuss end-of-life wishes, the ACNP must be mindful of their comfort level with such a discussion as well as previous experience with this topic. It is important to engage in such a conversation, as it allows the patient autonomy in decision-making, thus enabling the healthcare team to provide comfort measures rather than engage in unnecessary or unwanted treatment (Martin et al., 2014). Ultimately, when discussing end-of-life wishes, the patient should be granted the necessary tools to alleviate the stress of such a process, and it begins with the intrinsic ability to “make sense” of one's illness (Davidson, 2010). ACNPs have already demonstrated their value as members of the trauma team, and more research is necessary to validate their role in facilitating productive decision-making conversations with patients and their families. Through their altruistic nature and understanding of advanced disease processes, ACNPs should be utilized in assisting patients and family members in end-of-life decision-making, especially in the field of trauma.

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  • In the instance of trauma-related critical illness, patients and families are often faced with the difficult discussion topic of end-of-life wishes.
  • The trauma ACNP's scope of practice includes facilitating complex conversations such as end-of-life decision-making.
  • Some techniques that might be useful to the ACNP in such conversations include the decision support intervention technique, acting as a communication facilitator, thorough explanation of procedures, and the inclusion of the family in patient rounding (see the Supplemental Digital Content, Table A1, available at:
  • Trauma ACNPs are fundamental members of the interdisciplinary team, and when given the opportunity to engage patients and their families in end-of-life planning discussions, it would result in an established trusting relationship between the team, patient, and family. The ACNP has the skills necessary to provide the patient and the family with the information to make an autonomous decision, leading to overall patient satisfaction.
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Acute care nurse practitioner; Communication; Decision-making strategies; End-of-life; Trauma

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