Dealing with Families in the ICU

Having a family member as a patient in the Intensive care unit (ICU) is something no one plans for. It is an uncertain, frightening and stressful time. As your family member is hooked up to beeping machines with multiple tubes coming out of them, who will you turn to for answers? "The burden of decision making may feel unbearable" but "a trusted expert can relieve the agony of indecision" (Bryan-Brwon & Dracup, 2001). Nurses that work in the ICU must be able to properly communicate with the patient and their families while providing adequate information and compassion. (Mandy-Design Lead)

Bryan-Brown and Dracup (2001)explained that communication is a major factor in the ability to provide compassionate care. Families need to understand what is going on with their family member in ways they can comprehend. They need to be aware that resources are available. Family conferences will provide good communication and understanding (p.137-138). (Karie-Multimedia Lead)

Informed Consentinside_the_icu.jpg
The patient in the ICU is generally incapacitated, and therefore unable to make decisions regarding his/her health. Medlands & Ferrans explain that "because of this situation, provisions of information about the patients' status is an essential component of caring for the patients' family members" (Medland & Ferrans, 1998, p.1). This type of communication allows the patients' family to make informed decisions, giving informed consent for treatment and procedures. There are many similar definitions of informed consent, but its most important goal is to ensure that "the patient have an opportunity to be an informed participant in his health care decisions" unless unable; then "a surrogate decision maker must speak for her" ( Edwards, 2008). (Patricia-Editor)

pr87640.jpg Compassion
Having a family member in the ICU is a time of uncertainty that may require a parent, spouse or sibling to make a life altering decision with or for their loved one. It is a time when rational thinking is nearly impossible, making compassionate care provided by the nurse crucial. “Compassionate care is the demonstration of a sympathetic desire to aid those in need” (Bryan-Brown & Dracup, 2001, p. 137). Nurses must recognize that they are caring for someone’s critically ill loved one and demonstrating honesty, advocacy and understanding shows the family and patient, compassion (Benner, 2001, p. 1). The nurse needs to keep the family educated and informed to aid them through this difficult time. Their beliefs and decisions must be supported and met to the best of the nurse's ability. (Jennifer T-Project Manager)

icupic.jpgNurses have a very special role in the lives of both the patients and the families of the patients in the ICU. Although nurses may not be able to communicate with the patients in the typical manner due to the severity of their condition, they must still be an advocate for their patient. In some cases the families are making all or most of the decisions for the patient, which makes the role of the nurse even more important. Being a patient advocate in the ICU means that nurses must communicate information, show compassion and provide informed consent to the families of the patients. The families in the ICU deserve the respect, support, and the appropriate information required to deal with what are often life changing experiences and it is the role of the nurse to provide it to them. (Jennifer M-Editor)

The video clip provided by YouTube shows a patient and family members perspectives on nursing care.

Articles of Interest (External Links):


Benner, P. (2001). Death as a human passage: Compassion care for persons dying in critical care
units. American Journal of Critical Care, 10(5), 1-5. Retrieved from

Bryan-Brown, C. W., & Dracup, K. (2001). Protocols for compassion: American Journal of
Critical Care, 10(3), 136-138. Retrieved from

Edwards, Kelly, A. (2008). Ethics in Medicine: Informed consent. University of Washington School of Medicine. Retrieved from Stock Photography and Stock Footage. (ERM126.jpg and pr8740.jpg) Retrieved from

Johnson & Johnson. (2008). Campaigning for nursing's future (Video clip). Retrieved from

Medland, J., J., & Ferrans, C., E. (1998). Effectiveness of a Structured Communication Program for Family Members of Patients in an ICU. American Journal of Critical Care; Jan 1998; 7, 1; 24-26. Retrieved from