The differing perspectives of doctors and nurses in end-of-life decisions in the intensive care unit: A qualitative study

Published:October 31, 2019DOI:



      End-of-life (EOL) decision-making in the intensive care unit (ICU) can be emotionally challenging for both doctors and nurses, who are sometimes placed in difficult positions where they are required to make decisions on behalf of patients. With an ageing population and advances in medical technology, there is an increase in such decisions being made in ICUs.


      The objective of this study was to explore the perspectives of doctors and nurses involved in the EOL decision-making process in an ICU.


      This study used a qualitative methodology based on naturalistic inquiry. Intensive care nurses and doctors from a large Sydney metropolitan public hospital were purposively selected, and data saturation was reached after a total of eight nurses and four doctors were interviewed. Data were collected through semistructured interviews, either face-to-face or over the telephone. Interviews were then transcribed verbatim, and themes were identified and coded through a line-by-line analysis of each transcript (manual thematic analysis).


      The findings revealed two main themes: ‘Doctors' and nurses' roles in decision-making’ and ‘Managing family expectations’. These themes highlighted key differences in decision-making processes, in that doctors tended to aim to meet the family's needs, while the nurses tended to advocate on behalf of the patient and what they interpreted as the patient's best interests. Furthermore, nurses tended to feel undervalued in decision-making during family conferences, when in reality, the doctors were making decisions based on all information obtained, primarily from nursing staff.


      EOL decision-making is complex and affects doctors and nurses involved in different ways. More emphasis on interprofessional education and collaboration between the two disciplines may enhance future decision-making processes.


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