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Ethical aspects of time in intensive care decision making


The decision-making environment in intensive care units (ICUs) is influenced by the transformation of intensive care medicine, the staffing situation and the increasing importance of patient autonomy. Normative implications of time in intensive care, which affect all three areas, have so far barely been considered. The study explores patterns of decision making concerning the continuation, withdrawal and withholding of therapies in intensive care. A triangulation of qualitative data collection methods was chosen. Data were collected through non-participant observation on a surgical ICU at an academic medical centre followed by semi-structured interviews with nurses and physicians. The transcribed interviews and observation notes were coded and analysed using qualitative content analysis according to Mayring. Three themes related to time emerged regarding the escalation or de-escalation of therapies: influence of time on prognosis, time as a scarce resource and timing in regards to decision making. The study also reveals the ambivalence of time as a norm for decision making. The challenge of dealing with time-related efforts in ICU care results from the tension between the need to wait to optimise patient care, which must be balanced against the significant time pressure which is characteristic of the ICU setting.

  • ethics
  • health personnel
  • philosophy of medicine
  • clinical Ethics

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Data are available upon request.

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