Limitation of life-sustaining care in the critically ill: A systematic review of the literature

Katie McPherson, W. Graham Carlos, Thomas W. Emmett, James E. Slaven, Alexia M. Torke

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article

4 Scopus citations


When life-sustaining treatments (LST) are no longer effective or consistent with patient preferences, limitations may be set so that LSTs are withdrawn or withheld from the patient. Many studies have examined the frequency of limitations of LST in intensive care unit (ICU) settings in the past 30 years. This systematic review describes variation and patient characteristics associated with limitations of LST in critically ill patients in all types of ICUs in the United States. A comprehensive search of the literature was performed by a medical librarian between December 2014 and April 2017. A total of 1,882 unique titles and abstracts were reviewed, 113 were selected for article review, and 36 studies were fully reviewed. Patient factors associated with an increased likelihood of limiting LST included white race, older age, female sex, poor preadmission functional status, multiple comorbidities, and worse illness severity score. Based on several large, multicenter studies, there was a trend toward a higher frequency of limitation of LST over time. However, there is large variability between ICUs in the proportion of patients with limitations and on the proportion of deaths preceded by a limitation. Increases in the frequency of limitations of LST over time suggests changing attitudes about aggressive end-of-life-care. Limitations are more common for patients with worse premorbid health and greater ICU illness severity. While some differences in the frequency of limitations of LST may be explained by personal factors such as race, there is unexplained wide variability between units.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)303-310
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of hospital medicine
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Leadership and Management
  • Internal Medicine
  • Fundamentals and skills
  • Health Policy
  • Care Planning
  • Assessment and Diagnosis

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