BACKGROUND: Critical care nurses often have wide discretion in managing the sedative therapy of patients receiving mechanical ventilation. Little is known about the factors and processes that influence sedative practice. OBJECTIVES: To determine if nurses' personal beliefs about and attitudes toward critical illness and their goals for sedation influence the nurses' sedative practice, to discover whether social factors influence sedative therapy, and to describe the processes that nurses use to assess patients' need for sedative therapy. METHODS: Audiotapes of focus group interviews with 5 groups of 34 experienced medical and surgical intensive care unit nurses from 2 hospitals were transcribed verbatim. Two investigators independently analyzed the verbatim text, and a sample of the participants validated the category summaries and interpretations. RESULTS: Patients' family members can affect sedative practice directly or indirectly, and demands for efficient delivery of care can influence sedative therapy. Primary indications for sedation included patients' comfort and amnesia and prevention of patients' self-injurious behaviors. Conflicts between physicians and nurses arose when explicit and shared goals for sedation were lacking. Participants noted that numerous factors impede routine use of sedation protocols even though use of the protocols may improve communication and promote uniformity of sedative practice. CONCLUSION: Social, personal, and professional factors influence sedative therapy. Future research should establish the relative importance of these factors and determine whether their impact is attenuated when sedation protocols are implemented.

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