ICU (Intensive Care Unit): Tips for Patients and Families
Medical Author: Maureen Welker, MSN, NPc, CCRN
Medical Editor: William C. Shiel, Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
The Intensive Care Unit (ICU) is a very "intense" area and can create a great
deal of tension and stress for patients and families. Effective and appropriate
communication is an important part of the healing process, not only for the
patient, but also for the family.
The following are suggestions for family members on how to communicate with a
loved one in the ICU:
- Speak in a calm, clear manner. Make short positive statements. Many
family members assume because their loved one is on a ventilator they cannot
hear and so they speak loudly, don't worry they can hear you.
- Acknowledge and recognize any discomfort your loved one may be
experiencing. For example, you may tell them, "You're are in the ICU
and you have a tube to help you breath. This is just temporary and we will get
the nurse to give you some medication to make you more comfortable, you are
doing great and making progress."
- Do not ask the patient questions that cannot be answered. Use a board so the patient can
point to a word such as "pain," this allows your loved one to make his need
known. Most ICU's have these boards available or will make one for you. It is
not unusual for patients to be angry, frustrated, or not be interested in
communicating. Be patient
with them, the frustration level will decrease and perhaps another method of
communication will work better for them.
- Provide a small board for the patient to write on. Many patients can write just
enough so you know what they want. The hospital should provide this, however, these
boards can also be purchased at a drug store or art supply store.
- Offer short phrases that offer support and reassurance. For example, "Mom, its Maureen, I'm
here with you and you are doing much better. Everyone is taking good care of
- Simple hand gestures may work as well, such as thumbs up = "good"; and
thumbs down = "pain" or "I need something."
- Remind your loved one that "this is just temporary and they are making good
progress." Flood them with faith and hope.
- Hold your loved one's hand or touch them gently (be sure to check with the
ICU staff first). For example, rubbing lotion on their hands or feet may not be allowed.
- Orient your loved one to the surroundings, for example, the date and time of day.
may want to make a sign each day with the date on it and place it where they can
easily see it (for example, on the wall at the foot of their bed). Describe what the
different noises are to help ease any fear or anxiety they may have about them.
- Read your loved one's favorite prayers, poems, books, stories, or bible
- Music may be allowed in the ICU when appropriate. Again be sure to check
with the ICU staff for guidance.
- Finally, just ask — the ICU staff may have the perfect suggestion for you
to assist you in communicating with your loved one.
General suggestions that may be helpful to family members:
- Always check with the critical care staff before touching anything or
saying anything to the patient. Stimulation can cause harm during critical
periods of the recovery process.
- Ask the critical care staff to explain to you what the current status of
your love one is, so you understand what is going on and why.
- Ask for suggestions on what would be helpful at this time for your loved
- Do not discuss any unpleasant matters in your love one's room. If your love one's condition is critical, discuss this or other problems outside the room. For
example, do not discuss financial matters, or family disagreements, etc.
- If you are emotional and or upset either leave the room. It may be
helpful to request a
Chaplin or social worker to help you to calm down and help you feel reassured,
or sit quietly at the bedside. It may only be harmful to your loved one to speak
when you are angry or upset.
- Request your church Chaplin, the hospital Chaplin, or a social worker if you
feel you need further support for yourself or for your loved one during the
- Consider setting up a family visitation schedule to spend time at the
hospital, this prevents one person from becoming exhausted. For example: