Clinical Communication

A Talking Map for Family Meetings in the Intensive Care Unit



From the Department of Neurology, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC (Dr. McFarlin), the Department of Psychosocial Oncology and Palliative Care, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, MA (Dr. Tulsky), Harborview Medical Center, University of Washington, Seattle, WA (Dr. Back), and Department of Medicine, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA (Dr. Arnold).


  • Objective: To describe the use of a cognitive map for navigating family meetings with surrogate decision makers of patients in an intensive care unit.
  • Methods: Descriptive report and discussion using an illustrative case to outline the steps in the cognitive map.
  • Results: The use of cognitive maps has improved the ability of physicians to efficiently perform a specific communication skill. During a “goals of care” conversation, the cognitive map follows these steps: (1) Gather the clinical team for a pre-meeting, (2) Introduce everyone, (3) Use the “ask-tell-ask” strategy to communicate information, (4) Respond to emotion, (5) Highlight the patient’s voice, (6) Plan next steps, (7) Reflect on the meeting with the team. Providing this map of key communication skills will help faculty teach learners the core components of a family meeting.
  • Conclusion: Practicing the behaviors demonstrated in the cognitive map may increase clinician skill during difficult conversations. Improving communication with surrogate decision makers will increase the support we offer to critically ill patients and their loved ones.

Key words: intensive care unit; communication; family meeting; critical illness; decision making; end of life care.

Family members of patients in the ICU value high-quality communication with the medical team. In fact, family members report that physicians’ communication skills are often more important than their medical skills [1]. Multiple professional societies, including the American Thoracic Society and the Society of Critical Care Medicine, define communication with families as a key component of high-quality critical care. Effective physician-patient communication improves measureable outcomes including decreased ICU length of stay [2] and may reduce distress amongst patients’ families [3]. The American College of Chest Physicians position statement on Palliative and End-of-Life Care for Patients with Cardiopulmonary Diseases urges physicians to develop curricula that incorporate interpersonal communication skills into training [4].

Unfortunately, such high-quality communication is not the norm. Surrogate decision makers are often displeased with the frequency of communication, the limited availability of attending physicians, and report feeling excluded from discussions [5]. When family meetings do occur, surrogate decision makers report inadequate understanding of diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment plans [6].

Physicians also find family meetings difficult. Intensivists worry that high-quality family meetings are time consuming and difficult to do in a busy ICU [7]. Critical care fellows report not feeling adequately trained to conduct family meetings [8]. It makes sense that untrained clinicians would want to avoid a conversation that is emotionally charged, particularly if one is unsure how to respond effectively.

In this paper, we provide a cognitive map for navigating family meetings when patients are doing poorly and decisions need to be made about next steps (often called “goals of care” meetings). The use of cognitive (or “talking”) maps has improved the ability of physicians to efficiently perform a specific communication skill such as breaking bad news [9]. Laying out the component communication skills also helps faculty teach learners. Much like the steps of any medical procedure (eg, inserting a central line), a talking map provides a guide physicians can use during family conferences. To supplement the map (Table 1), we provide examples of specific things a physician may say during a family meeting in the ICU. An illustrative case provides a framework for incorporating the use of a talking map into family meetings with surrogate decision makers.

The Case of Mr. A

Thomas A. is a 79-year-old man admitted to the medical intensive care unit 7 days earlier with a large left middle cerebral artery territory infarction. Given his decreased mental status, on admission he was intubated for airway protection. He is awake but aphasic and unable to follow any commands or move his right side. The neurology consultants do not feel this will improve. He has significant secretions and episodes of hypoxia. He has also developed acute on chronic kidney injury and may need to start dialysis. The social worker explains that his need for dialysis limits his placement options and that he will not be able to be discharged to home. Given his lack of improvement the team is concerned he will need a tracheostomy and feeding tube placed in order to safely continue this level of care. A family meeting is arranged to understand Mr. A’s goals of care.

Talking Map Basics

Before each step is discussed in detail, some definitions are needed. “Family” can be defined as anyone important enough, biologically related or not, to be present at a conversation with a clinician [10]. Second, a “family meeting” is a planned event between the family and interdisciplinary members of the ICU team as well as any other health care providers who have been involved in the patient’s care. The meeting takes place in a private space and at a time that is scheduled with the families’ needs in mind. Thus it is different from having families present on rounds or one-off meetings with particular clinicians.

Goals of care meetings are typically held when, in the clinicians’ view, the current treatments are not achieving the previously stated goals. Thus, the meeting has 2 purposes: first, to give the family the bad news that the current plan is not working and second, to develop a new plan based on the patient’s values. The family’s job, as surrogate decision maker, is to provide information about what would be most important to the patient. The clinician’s job is to suggest treatment plans that have the best probability of matching the patient’s values.

Not all of these tasks need be done at once. Some families will not be able to move from hearing bad news to making a decision without having time to first reflect and grieve. Others will need to confer with other family members privately before deciding on a plan. In many cases, a time-limited trial may be the right option with a plan for subsequent meetings. Given this, we recommend checking in with the family between each step to ensure that they feel safe moving ahead. For example, one might ask “Is it OK if we talk about what happens next?”

Talking Map Steps in Detail

1. Gather the Clinical Team for a Pre-Meeting

ICU care involves a large interdisciplinary care team. A “meeting before the meeting” with the entire clinical team is an opportunity to reach consensus on prognosis and therapeutic options, share prior interactions with family, and determine goals for the family meeting. It is also helpful to clarify team members’ roles at the meeting and to choose a primary facilitator. All of this helps to ensure that the family receives a consistent message during the meeting. The pre-meeting is also an opportunity to ask a team member to observe the communication skills of the facilitator and be prepared to give feedback after the meeting.

At this time, the team should also create the proper environment for the family meeting. This includes a quiet room free of interruptions with ample seating, available tissues, and transferred pagers and cell phones.

The intensivist and bedside nurse should always be present at the family meeting, and it is best when the same attending can be at subsequent family meetings Their consistent dual presence provides the uniform communication from the team, can reduce anxiety in family members and the collaboration reduces ICU nurse and physician burnout [11]. For illnesses that involve a specific disease or organ system, it is important to have the specialist at the meeting who can provide the appropriate expertise.


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