A pilot study of trained ICU doulas providing early psychological support to critically ill patients

Lioudmila V. Karnatovskaia, Katalin Varga, Alexander S. Niven, Phillip J. Schulte, Midhat Mujic, Ognjen Gajic, Brent A. Bauer, Matthew M. Clark, Roberto P. Benzo, Kemuel L. Philbrick

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Over a third of critical illness survivors suffer from mental health problems following hospitalization. Memories of delusional experiences are a major risk factor. In this project, ICU doulas delivered a unique positive suggestion intervention targeting the vulnerable time period during critical illness when these memories are formed. Methods: Adult critically ill patients were recruited for this single-arm, prospective pilot study. These ICU patients received a positive suggestion intervention daily during their ICU stay in parallel with their medical treatment. The intervention was designed to be delivered over a minimum of two sessions. Feasibility was defined as intervention delivery on ≥ 70% of ICU days after patient enrollment. As a secondary analysis, psychometric questionnaires were compared to those of a historic control cohort of patients receiving standard care in the ICU using adjusted linear regression models. Results: Of the 97 patients who received the intervention and were alive at the end of their ICU course, 54 were excluded from analyses mostly for having received only one session because of a short ICU length of stay of < 2 days, transitioning to comfort care or not wanting to answer the study questionnaires. Forty-three patients who completed 2 or more sessions of the positive therapeutic suggestion intervention provided by two trained ICU doulas received it for a median of 4 days (IQR 3, 5), with each session lasting for a median of 20 min (IQR 14, 25). The intervention was delivered on 71% of days, meeting our pre-determined feasibility goal. Compared to historical controls (N = 299), patients receiving the intervention had higher severity of illness and longer length of stay. When adjusted for baseline differences, patients both with and without mechanical ventilation who received the intervention scored lower on the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS)—Depression subscale. The intervention was also associated with reduced HADS-Anxiety subscale among ventilated patients. Conclusions: Positive therapeutic suggestion delivered by ICU doulas is feasible in the ICU setting. A randomized trial is warranted to better delineate the role that positive suggestion and ICU doulas may play in ongoing interprofessional efforts to humanize critical care medicine. The study was registered on clinicaltrials.gov (NCT03736954) on 03/14/2018 prior to the first patient enrollment https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT03736954?cond=ICU+Doulas+Providing+Psychological+Support&draw=2&rank=1.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number446
JournalCritical Care
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2021


  • Anxiety
  • Critically ill
  • Depression
  • Doula
  • PTSD
  • Positive suggestion
  • Psychological support
  • Therapeutic suggestion

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Critical Care and Intensive Care Medicine


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