Life support in the intensive care unit: a qualitative investigation of technological purposes. Canadian Critical Care Trials Group.
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BACKGROUND: The ability of many intensive care unit (ICU) technologies to prolong life has led to an outcomes-oriented approach to technology assessment, focusing on morbidity and mortality as clinically important end points. With advanced life support, however, the therapeutic goals sometimes shift from extending life to allowing life to end. The objective of this study was to understand the purposes for which advanced life support is withheld, provided, continued or withdrawn in the ICU. METHODS: In a 15-bed ICU in a university-affiliated hospital, the authors observed 25 rounds and 11 family meetings in which withdrawal or withholding of advanced life support was addressed. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 7 intensivists, 5 consultants, 9 ICU nurses, the ICU nutritionist, the hospital ethicist and 3 pastoral services representatives, to discuss patients about whom life support decisions were made and to discuss life-support practices in general. Interview transcripts and field notes were analysed inductively to identify and corroborate emerging themes; data were coded following modified grounded theory techniques. Triangulation methods included corroboration among multiple sources of data, multidisciplinary team consensus, sharing of results with participants and theory triangulation. RESULTS: Although life-support technologies are traditionally deployed to treat morbidity and delay mortality in ICU patients, they are also used to orchestrate dying. Advanced life support can be withheld or withdrawn to help determine prognosis. The tempo of withdrawal influences the method and timing of death. Decisions to withhold, provide, continue or withdraw life support are socially negotiated to synchronize understanding and expectations among family members and clinicians. In discussions, one discrete life support technology is sometimes used as an archetype for the more general concept of technology. At other times, life-support technologies are discussed collectively to clarify the pursuit of appropriate goals of care. CONCLUSIONS: The orchestration of death involves process-oriented as well as outcome-oriented uses of technology. These uses should be considered in the assessment of life-support technologies and directives for their appropriate use in the ICU.
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