High-quality communication is a key determinant and facilitator of patient-centered care. Nurses engage in most of the communication with patients and patients’ families in the intensive care unit.


To perform a qualitative analysis of nurses’ communications.


Ethnographic observations of 315 hours of interactions and 53 semistructured interviews with 33 nurses were conducted in a 26-bed cardiac-medical intensive care unit in an academic hospital and a 26-bed general intensive care unit in a Veterans Affairs hospital in Portland, Oregon. Communication interactions were categorized into 5 domains of patient-centered care. Interviews were analyzed to identify major themes in nurses’ roles and preferences for communicating with patients and patients’ families within the domains.


Most communication occurred in the domains of biopsychosocial information exchange, patient as person, and clinician as person. Nurses endorsed the importance of the domains of shared power and responsibility and therapeutic alliance but had relatively few communication interactions in these areas. Communication behaviors were strongly influenced by the nurses’ roles as translators of information between physicians and patients and the patients’ families and what the nurses were and were not willing to communicate to patients and patients’ families.


Critical care, including communication, is a collaborative effort. Understanding how nurses engage in patient-centered communication in the intensive care unit can guide future interventions to improve patient-centered care.

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