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 you."
  • 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. You 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 verses.
  • 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.