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Open Access Highly Accessed Commentary

Prolonging life and delaying death: The role of physicians in the context of limited intensive care resources

Robert C McDermid* and Sean M Bagshaw

Author Affiliations

Division of Critical Care Medicine, University of Alberta Hospital, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

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Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine 2009, 4:3  doi:10.1186/1747-5341-4-3

Published: 12 February 2009

Abstract

Critical care is in an emerging crisis of conflict between what individuals expect and the economic burden society and government are prepared to provide. The goal of critical care support is to prevent suffering and premature death by intensive therapy of reversible illnesses within a reasonable timeframe. Recently, it has become apparent that early support in an intensive care environment can improve patient outcomes. However, life support technology has advanced, allowing physicians to prolong life (and postpone death) in circumstances that were not possible in the recent past. This has been recognized by not only the medical community, but also by society at large. One corollary may be that expectations for recovery from critical illness have also become extremely high. In addition, greater numbers of patients are dying in intensive care units after having receiving prolonged durations of life-sustaining therapy. Herein lies the emerging crisis – critical care therapy must be available in a timely fashion for those who require it urgently, yet its provision is largely dependent on a finite availability of both capital and human resources. Physicians are often placed in a troubling conflict of interest by pressures to use health resources prudently while also promoting the equitable and timely access to critical care therapy. In this commentary, these issues are broadly discussed from the perspective of the individual clinician as well as that of society as a whole. The intent is to generate dialogue on the dynamic between individual clinicians navigating the complexities of how and when to use critical care support in the context of end-of-life issues, the increasing demands placed on finite critical care capacity, and the reasonable expectations of society.