BACKGROUND: Little is known about communication between patients and their family members during critical illness and mechanical ventilation in the intensive care unit, including use of augmentative and alternative communication tools and strategies. OBJECTIVES: To identify (1) which augmentative and alternative communication tools families use with nonspeaking intensive care patients and how they are used, and (2) what families and nurses say about communication of family members with nonspeaking intensive care patients. METHODS: A qualitative secondary analysis was conducted of existing data from a clinical trial testing interventions to improve communication between nurses and intensive care patients. Narrative study data (field notes, intervention logs, nurses' interviews) from 127 critically ill adults were reviewed for evidence of family involvement with augmentative and alternative communication tools. Qualitative content analysis was applied for thematic description of family members' and nurses' accounts of patient-family communication. RESULTS: Family involvement with augmentative and alternative communication tools was evident in 44% of the 93 patients who completed the parent study protocol. Spouses or significant others communicated with patients most often. Main themes describing patient-family communication included (1) families being unprepared and unaware, (2) families' perceptions of communication effectiveness, (3) nurses deferring to or guiding patient-family communication, (4) patients' communication characteristics, and (5) families' experience with and interest in augmentative and alternative communication tools. CONCLUSIONS: Assessment by skilled bedside clinicians can reveal patients' communication potential and facilitate useful augmentative and alternative communication tools and strategies for patients and their families.
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