BACKGROUND: With much attention being focused on how patients die and whether or not they are provided appropriate care, the care of dying patients in intensive care units must be described and improved. OBJECTIVES: To describe end-of-life care in intensive care units as perceived by critical care nurses who have taken care of dying patients. METHODS: A semistructured interview guide was developed and revised after pretesting in a focus group of faculty clinicians with extensive, recent experience in intensive care. Four focus groups were held with randomly selected nurses from 4 intensive care units in 2 hospitals; participants had 2 years or more of experience and were working half-time or more. Tapes from each focus group were transcribed and reviewed by the investigators before the subsequent group met. Category labels were developed, and topics and themes were determined. RESULTS: "Good" end-of-life care in the intensive care unit was described as ensuring that the patient is as pain-free as possible and that the patient's comfort and dignity are maintained. Involvement of the patient's family is crucial. A clear, accurate prognosis and continuity of care also are important. Switching from curative care to comfort care is awkward. CONCLUSIONS: Disagreement among patients' family members or among caregivers, uncertainty about prognosis, and communication problems further complicate end-of-life care in intensive care units. Changes in the physical environment, education about end-of-life care, staff support, and better communication would improve care of dying patients and their families.

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