The changing role of palliative care in the ICU

Rebecca A. Aslakson, J. Randall Curtis, Judith E. Nelson

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Objectives: Palliative care is an interprofessional specialty as well as an approach to care by all clinicians caring for patients with serious and complex illness. Unlike hospice, palliative care is based not on prognosis but on need and is an essential component of comprehensive care for critically ill patients from the time of ICU admission. In this clinically focused article, we review evidence of opportunities to improve palliative care for critically ill adults, summarize strategies for ICU palliative care improvement, and identify resources to support implementation. Data Sources: We searched the MEDLINE database from inception through January 2014. We also searched the Reference Library of The Improving Palliative Care in the ICU Project website sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and the Center to Advance Palliative Care, which is updated monthly. We handsearched reference lists and author files. Study Selection: Selected studies included all English-language articles concerning adult patients using the search terms "intensive care" or "critical care" with "palliative care," "supportive care," "end-of-life care," or "ethics." Data Extraction: After examination of peer-reviewed original scientific articles, consensus statements, guidelines, and reviews resulting from our literature search, we made final selections based on author consensus. Data Synthesis: Existing evidence is organized to address: 1) opportunities to alleviate physical and emotional symptoms, improve communication, and provide support for patients and families; 2) models and specific interventions for improving ICU palliative care; 3) available resources for ICU palliative care improvement; and 4) ongoing challenges and targets for future research. Key domains of ICU palliative care have been defined and operationalized as measures of quality. There is increasing recognition that effective integration of palliative care during acute and chronic critical illness may help patients and families face challenges after discharge from intensive care. Conclusions: Palliative care is increasingly accepted as an essential component of comprehensive care for critically ill patients, regardless of diagnosis or prognosis. A variety of strategies to improve ICU palliative care appear to be effective, and resources including technical assistance and tools are available to support improvement efforts. As the longer-term impact of intensive care on those surviving acute critical illness is increasingly documented, palliative care can help prepare and support patients and families for challenges after ICU discharge. Further research is needed to inform efforts to integrate palliative care with intensive care more effectively and efficiently in and after the ICU and to document improvement using valid and responsive outcome measures.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2418-2428
Number of pages11
JournalCritical care medicine
Issue number11
StatePublished - 2014


  • Caregiver
  • Communication
  • Family
  • Intensive care
  • Intensive care units
  • Palliative care
  • Patient-centered care

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Critical Care and Intensive Care Medicine

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