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What should I address at follow-up of patients who survive critical illness?

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Mental health impairments in ICU survivors are common, severe, debilitating, and unfortunately, commonly overlooked. A recent study found a 37% incidence of depression and a 40% incidence of anxiety; further, 22% of patients met criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder.12 Patients with critical illness are also more likely to have had untreated mental health illness before hospitalization. Anxiety may present with poor sleep, irritability, and fatigue. Posttraumatic stress disorder may manifest as flashbacks or as a severe cognitive or behavioral response to provocation. All of these may be assessed using standard screening questionnaires, including the Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Checklist, the 2-item Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-2) for depression, and the 7-item Generalized Anxiety Disorder Screen (GAD-7).

Many primary care physicians are comfortable treating some of the psychiatric disturbances associated with PICS, such as depression, but may be challenged by the spectrum and complexity of mental illness of ICU survivors. Early referral to a mental health professional ensures optimal psychiatric care and allows more time to focus on the patient’s medical comorbidities.


The cognitive, physical, and mental health complications coupled with other medical and psychiatric comorbidities result in serious social and financial stress on patients and their families. Long-term follow-up studies show that only half of patients return to work within 1 year of critical illness and that nearly one-fourth require continued assistance with activities of daily living.13 Reassuringly, however, most patients in 1 study had returned to work by 2 years from discharge.3

The immense burden on caregivers, the decrease in income, and increased expenditures in providing care result in increased stress on families. The incidence of depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder is similar among patients and their caregivers.11 The frequency of emotional morbidity and the severity of the caregiver burden associated with caring for ICU survivors led to the description of a new entity: post-intensive care syndrome-family, or PICS-F.

Because of these stresses, patients often benefit from referral to a social worker. Patients should also be encouraged to bring their caregivers to physician appointments, and family members should be encouraged to discuss their perspectives in the context of a dedicated appointment. Family members should also be screened and treated for their own medical and mental health challenges. A dedicated ICU survivorship clinic may help facilitate this holistic approach and provide complementary services to the primary care provider.


As survival rates after critical illness continue to improve and clinicians encounter more patients with PICS, it is essential to appreciate the extent of associated physical, emotional, and financial hardship and to recognize when cognitive impairment may interfere with treatment. Early and accurate recognition of these challenges can help the primary care physician arrange and coordinate recovery services that ICU survivors require. Including family members in follow-up appointments can help overcome challenges in adherence to treatment plans, uncover gaps in social support, and identify signs of caregiver distress.

A thorough physical assessment and a thoughtful reconciliation of medications are critical, as is engaging the assistance of physical and occupational therapists, mental health professionals, and social workers.

Risk factors for the illness that necessitated the ICU stay such as uncontrolled diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and substance abuse, as well as medical sequelae such as chronic respiratory failure and heart failure, must be considered and addressed by the primary care physician, with referral to medical specialists if necessary.

Referral to an ICU survivorship center, if locally available, could help the physician manage the patient’s complex and multidisciplinary physical and neuropsychiatric needs. The Society of Critical Care Medicine maintains a resource for survivors and families at www.myicucare.org/thrive/pages/find-in-person-support-groups.aspx.

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Critical care medicine: An ongoing journey

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