When do I stop the code?

A hospitalist’s dilemma


I had just received my sign-out for the day. My pager beeped, and I heard it overhead “Code Blue Room X.” Hospitalist physicians lead the code team in our hospital; I quickly headed to the room.

Dr. Bibhusan Basnet, hospitalist in Roswell, N.M.

Dr. Bibhusan Basnet

A young man in his forties was found to be unconscious on the floor. One of the nurses had started cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) as the patient was unconscious and had no palpable pulse. It was a long, drawn-out battle: CPR, cracking bones, shouting, lots of needles – an extreme roller-coaster-style situation. The patient had recently had a hip surgery and our suspicion was a massive pulmonary embolism. We ran the exhaustive code for more than an hour and then I started to debrief with my code team; discussed that treatment was getting futile and asked for opinions. Finally, I asked the team to stop and pronounced the patient dead. I felt terrible. Later that day I returned to my house, tossed my bag in the corner, and sympathized with myself – “Hello Dr. B, It was a tough one.”

Stopping resuscitation was one of the toughest decisions I had ever made, and I wondered if I would be able to make such a decision the next day. What if I had carried on? I had led code teams during my residency training and as an attending physician; but there was something different that day. This patient was a young man with no history of medical problems. Every physician knows how to initiate resuscitation for cardiopulmonary arrest (CPA); only a few know when to stop it. Did I miss this learning during my internal medicine training? I checked my red pocket leaflet with advanced cardiac life support (ACLS) algorithms, and it had no mention of it. I searched Google Scholar, PubMed, and UpToDate and surprisingly, I found no predetermined rule but only a few recommendations on when CPR should be stopped. The American Heart Association is clear that the decision to terminate resuscitative efforts rests with the treating physician in the hospital.

In my experience, the length of time to continue a code can vary widely and is mostly dependent on the physician running the code. I have seen it last 15 minutes (which is reasonable) and I have seen it last for 50 minutes when the initial rhythm was ventricular fibrillation. And if perhaps the patient regains a pulse temporarily, only to lose it again, we restart the clock. One needs to take into account various factors including time to CPR, time to defibrillation, comorbid disease, prearrest state, and initial arrest rhythm in making these decisions. It’s well understood that none of these factors alone or in combination is clearly predictive of outcome.1

Some selected patients potentially have good outcomes with prolonged, aggressive resuscitation. So when should we stop, and when should we continue resuscitation? This is always challenging. Physicians hate to stop CPR even when they know it’s time. We are guided by the Hippocratic Oath to save lives. Sometimes, even if we want to stop, we tend to continue to avoid being criticized for stopping; we are systematically biased against stopping CPR. We routinely run long codes, in part because we are not sure which patients we can bring back.

A 2012 Lancet study highlighted that the median duration of resuscitation was 12 minutes for patients achieving the return of spontaneous circulation and 20 minutes for nonsurvivors.2 The ethical guidelines issued by AHA in 2018 highlight that, in the absence of mitigating factors, prolonged resuscitative efforts for adults and children are unlikely to be successful and can be discontinued if there is no return of spontaneous circulation at any time during 30 minutes of cumulative ACLS. If the return of spontaneous circulation of any duration occurs at any time, however, it may be appropriate to consider extending the resuscitative effort.3

I believe a careful balance of the patient’s prognosis for both length of life and quality of life will determine whether continued CPR is appropriate. The responsible clinician should stop the resuscitative effort when he or she determines with a high degree of certainty that the arrest victim will not respond to further efforts. But what will help me guide my decisions next time if I ever come across this situation again?

I discussed my dilemma with one of our intensivist physicians; he expressed that in a similar scenario he would ask for opinions from other members of the code team. The role of good communication among code team members is necessary to exchange relevant knowledge in real time in a collaborative, nonhierarchical environment. The code team can provide the team leader with quick, accurate information about the patient’s clinical history that is critical to good decision making.

Family support is also an essential part of any resuscitation. Health care providers need to offer the opportunity to be present to family members during the resuscitation attempts whenever possible. One team member should be assigned to the family to answer questions, clarify information, and offer comfort, but physicians should not be asking family members to decide to stop the code. It is important to note that the decision should be made by the team leader and not the patient’s family members. Regardless of the age or condition of the patient, the loss of a loved one is difficult to deal with, even if expected. The issue becomes more difficult with changes in legal, cultural, or personal perspectives.

The AHA in 2018 stated that the treating physician is expected to understand the patient and the arrest features, and the system factors that have prognostic importance for resuscitation.3 For clinicians who work in critical care settings, the framework presented by AHA is intuitive. As a code leader, I can always give more epinephrine, try a clot-busting drug or deliver another shock. Situations vary greatly during a code, and the amount of time spent resuscitating a patient before terminating efforts is not set in stone. In many cases, it is a judgment call. The process of CPR is almost as disheartening as its bleak outcomes.

In-hospital CPAs are inevitably gruesome. Each day as an attending physician, we are faced with difficult decisions, but experiencing these incredibly difficult and life-changing events can make for good learning. A CPA situation in action is very difficult for all concerned, particularly when there is almost no chance of success. But an unsuccessful or aborted resuscitation is also a huge loss for both the family and the code team. One of the critical functions of the code team leader is to review the events of a code and exercise judgment while evaluating the length of a code. This can be an intense and emotional experience, but with these principles in mind, we can feel reassured that we are making the best decision possible, for the patient, the family, and our team.

Dr. Basnet is a hospitalist physician in the department of internal medicine at Eastern New Mexico Medical Center, Roswell.


1. Part 2: Ethical aspects of CPR and ECC. Circulation. 2000;102(8):I12.

2. Goldberger ZD et al. Duration of resuscitation efforts and survival after in-hospital cardiac arrest: An observational study. The Lancet. 2012;380(9852):1473-81.

3. Sirbaugh PE et al. A prospective, population-based study of the demographics, epidemiology, management, and outcome of out-of-hospital pediatric cardiopulmonary arrest. Ann Emerg Med. 1999;33(2):174-84.

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