Journal of General Internal Medicine

, Volume 16, Issue 5, pp 283–289

Conflict associated with decisions to limit life-sustaining treatment in intensive care units

  • Catherine M. Breen
  • Amy P. Abernethy
  • Katherine H. Abbott
  • James A. Tulsky
Original Articles

DOI: 10.1046/j.1525-1497.2001.00419.x

Cite this article as:
Breen, C.M., Abernethy, A.P., Abbott, K.H. et al. J GEN INTERN MED (2001) 16: 283. doi:10.1046/j.1525-1497.2001.00419.x


OBJECTIVE: To determine the incidence and nature of interpersonal conflicts that arise when patients in the intensive care unit are considered for limitation of life-sustaining treatment.

DESIGN: Qualitative analysis of prospectively gathered interviews.

SETTING: Six intensive care units at a university medical center.

PARTICIPANTS: Four hundred six physicians and nurses who were involved in the care of 102 patients for whom withdrawal or withholding of treatment was considered.

MEASUREMENTS: Semistructured interviews addressed disagreements during life-sustaining treatment decision making. Two raters coded transcripts of the audiotaped interviews.

MAIN RESULTS: At least 1 health care provider in 78% of the cases described a situation coded as conflict. Conflict occurred between the staff and family members in 48% of the cases, among staff members in 48%, and among family members in 24%. In 63% of the cases, conflict arose over the decision about life-sustaining treatment itself. In 45% of the cases, conflict occurred over other tasks such as communication and pain control. Social issues caused conflict in 19% of the cases.

CONCLUSIONS: Conflict is more prevalent in the setting of intensive care decision making than has previously been demonstrated. While conflict over the treatment decision itself is most common, conflict over other issues, including social issues, is also significant. By identifying conflict and by recognizing that the treatment decision may not be the only conflict present, or even the main one, clinicians may address conflict more constructively.

Key Words

conflict (psychology) terminal care decision making life support care resuscitation orders 

Copyright information

© Blackwell Science Inc 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Catherine M. Breen
    • 2
  • Amy P. Abernethy
    • 3
  • Katherine H. Abbott
    • 1
  • James A. Tulsky
    • 1
    • 3
    • 4
    • 5
  1. 1.Received from the Program on the Medical Encounter and Palliative CareVA Medical CenterDurham
  2. 2.Department of PathologyVA Medical CenterDurham
  3. 3.Department of MedicineVA Medical CenterDurham
  4. 4.Center for the Study of Aging and Human DevelopmentVA Medical CenterDurham
  5. 5.Institute on Care at the End of LifeDuke UniversityDurham
  6. 6.VA Medical Center (152)Durham