Treatment withdrawal

Sadly, despite all the treatments available, some patients are too ill to survive. Death of a loved one is always a terrible event even if it has been expected. The doctors on the Intensive Care Unit will often be able to warn families that there is a deterioration and that they expect their loved one will die despite treatment. Death can still happen very suddenly, and the doctors and nurses cannot always give a family enough warning to return to the hospital to be present.

Relatives should ask any questions they want during the illness and should feel able to ask the doctors about the chances for recovery. The doctors will be as honest and accurate as possible but it is frequently very difficult to predict the outcome for a particular patient.

With the advances in intensive care it is often the case that the treatments will continue to keep a patient alive for a long time after it becomes clear that there is no chance of survival and recovery. In this situation the doctors will discuss withdrawing treatment with the family to keep them fully informed and to understand what the patient's own wishes would have been if they were able to tell us.

Ultimately the decision to continue treatment or not rests with the Intensive Care consultants, and they will frequently discuss these difficult decisions with other ICU consultants as well as the specialist teams. If the doctors feel that there is no chance of recovery then they will not continue to put the patient through the difficulties and discomforts of Intensive Care but will explain that there is no more that can be done.

A doctor cannot continue a treatment that is of no benefit to the patient as this breaks the ethical principles under which they practice.

There is absolutely no question of giving treatments that will speed up or cause a patient to die. Treatment withdrawal is the removal of treatments or reducing a level of support that is artificially keeping a patient alive. Intensive Care Units have a system for doing this in a way that ensures the patient will not suffer. The time it takes for a patient to die is very variable and difficult to predict, from a few minutes to several hours.

ICU staff should be able to answer any questions you may have about your relative's condition before they died and their medical care. If there is anything unclear about the cause of your relative's death, you can ask to meet the Consultant in charge of the ICU.




If you wish, you should be able to spend time with your relative's body when they have died. Nursing staff will be able to advise you on any formalities that are required at this time.

Bereavement is a shattering experience. The death of someone close can leave feelings of numbness, tiredness and helplessness as well as deep sadness. Coming to terms with your loss can be a long process and it is perfectly natural for it to take time. Family and friends can be a great source of support but you may also wish to contact one of the organisations listed in Resources section.

In addition, the Bereavement Office at St. Peter's offers advice and practical support for bereaved relatives and carers in the period immediately following the death of a loved one. They will help you to make arrangements to:

  • Collect the medical certificate of cause of death
  • Explain the procedures for the registration of death
  • Explain the procedure for the return of the deceased’s property

In some cases the Trust will not be able to complete the medical certificate of cause of death and the case may be referred to the Coroner’s Officers. Our Bereavement Office will be able to advise you on how to proceed.

The Bereavement Office is open Monday to Friday, 9am til 4pm and is situated to the left of the main Outpatients' Entrance. To avoid an unnecessary wait, it is strongly recommended that you telephone ahead of your intended visit so that the Bereavement Officer can get everything ready for you. Their telephone number is 01932 722319. 


Organ Donation


It may be possible for a patient who has died to become an organ donor. Organ donation is frequently an option if a patient, who is on a ventilator, is pronounced dead as a result of brain-stem death.

It may also be possible for body tissues to be donated within 24 hours of death. Some people find that organ or tissue donation is something positive that can be gained from a terrible situation, particularly if they know it is what their relative wanted.

The ICU staff can talk to you about the possibilities of donation.

For further information about organ donation please click here to visit the NHS Organ Donation website.