, Volume 39, Issue 6, pp 1009-1018
Date: 05 Apr 2013

Factors that contribute to physician variability in decisions to limit life support in the ICU: a qualitative study

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Our aim was to explore reasons for physician variability in decisions to limit life support in the intensive care unit (ICU) utilizing qualitative methodology.


Single center study consisting of semi-structured interviews with experienced physicians and nurses. Seventeen intensivists from medical (n = 7), surgical (n = 5), and anesthesia (n = 5) critical care backgrounds, and ten nurses from medical (n = 5) and surgical (n = 5) ICU backgrounds were interviewed. Principles of grounded theory were used to analyze the interview transcripts.


Eleven factors within four categories were identified that influenced physician variability in decisions to limit life support: (1) physician work environment—workload and competing priorities, shift changes and handoffs, and incorporation of nursing input; (2) physician experiences—of unexpected patient survival, and of limiting life support in physician’s family; (3) physician attitudes—investment in a good surgical outcome, specialty perspective, values and beliefs; and (4) physician relationship with patient and family—hearing the patient’s wishes firsthand, engagement in family communication, and family negotiation.


We identified several factors which physicians and nurses perceived were important sources of physician variability in decisions to limit life support. Ways to raise awareness and ameliorate the potentially adverse effects of factors such as workload, competing priorities, shift changes, and handoffs should be explored. Exposing intensivists to long term patient outcomes, formalizing nursing input, providing additional training, and emphasizing firsthand knowledge of patient wishes may improve decision making.