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Life after critical illness: an overview


  • Janice Rattray MN, PhD, RGN, SCM

    Reader in Acute and Critical Care Nursing, Corresponding author
    1. School of Nursing and Midwifery, University of Dundee, Dundee, UK
    • Correspondence: Janice Rattray, Reader in Acute and Critical Care Nursing, School of Nursing and Midwifery, University of Dundee, 11 Airlie Place, Dundee DD1 4HJ, UK. Telephone: +44 (0)1382 384921.


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Aims and objectives

To illustrate the potential physical and psychological problems faced by patients after an episode of critical illness, highlight some of the interventions that have been tested and identify areas for future research.


Recovery from critical illness is an international problem and as an issue is likely to increase. For some, recovery from critical illness is prolonged, subject to physical and psychological problems that may negatively impact upon health-related quality of life.


The literature accessed for this review includes the work of a number of key researchers in the field of critical care research. These were identified from a number of sources include (1) personal knowledge of the research field accumulated over the last decade and (2) using the search engine ‘The Knowledge Network Scotland’.


Fatigue and weakness are significant problems for critical care survivors and are common in patients who have been in ICU for more than one week. Psychological problems include anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, delirium and cognitive impairment. Prevalence of these problems is difficult to establish for a number of methodological reasons that include the use of self-report questionnaires, the number of different questionnaires used and the variation in administration and timing. Certain subgroups of ICU survivors especially those at the more severe end of the illness severity spectrum are more at risk and this has been demonstrated for both physical and psychological problems. Findings from international studies of a range of potential interventions are presented. However, establishing effectiveness for most of these still has to be empirically demonstrated.


What seems clear is the need for a co-ordinated, multidisciplinary, designated recovery and rehabilitation pathway that begins as soon as the patient is admitted into an intensive care unit.