Managing clinical uncertainty: an ethnographic study of the impact of critical care outreach on end‐of‐life transitions in ward‐based critically ill patients with a life‐limiting illness
Rapid response teams, such as critical care outreach teams, have prominent roles in managing end-of-life transitions in critical illness, often questioning appropriateness of treatment escalation. Clinical uncertainty presents clinicians with dilemmas in how and when to escalate or de-escalate treatment. Aims and objectives: To explore how critical care outreach team decision-making processes affect the management of transition points for critically ill, ward-based patients with a life-limiting illness. Methods: An ethnographic study across two hospitals observed transition points and decisions to de-escalate treatment, through the lens of critical care outreach. In-depth interviews were carried out to elucidate rationales for practices witnessed in observations. Detailed field notes were taken and placed in a descriptive account. Ethnographic data were analysed, categorised and organised into themes using thematic analysis. Findings: Data were collected over 74 weeks, encompassing 32 observation periods with 20 staff, totalling more than 150 hr. Ten formal staff interviews and 20 informal staff interviews were undertaken. Three main themes emerged: early decision-making and the role of critical care outreach; communicating end-of-life transitions; end-of-life care and the input of critical care outreach. Findings suggest there is a negotiation to achieve smooth transitions for individual patients, between critical care outreach, and parent or ward medical teams. This process of negotiation is subject to many factors that either hinder or facilitate timely transitions. Conclusions: Critical care outreach teams have an important role in shared decision-making. Associated emotional costs relate to conflict with parent medical teams, and working as lone practitioners. The cultural contexts in which teams work have a significant effect on their interactions and agency. Relevance to practice: There needs to be a cultural shift towards early and open discussion of treatment goals and limitations of medical treatment, particularly when facing serious illness. With training and competencies, outreach nurses are well placed to facilitate these discussions.