Informal May be Best Approach to End-of-Life Conversations

HealthLeaders Media Staff, February 2, 2011

End-of-life planning may be a hot potato in Washington, but for patients, families, and their providers it’s a serious concern, emotionally, financially and medically. A new study suggests that end-of-life discussions are vital, and that informal conversations may be best, especially in terms of preparing caregivers to take on the role of surrogate decision-maker.

Family caregivers who had not discussed life support measures with critically ill patients took nearly two weeks longer to decide to stop further medical intervention than those who had prior conversations about the subject, according to research presented in a poster presentation at the Society of Critical Care Medicine Congress in San Diego.

"The absence of prior discussions about treatment preferences is independently associated with low confidence among family members to act as surrogate decision-makers and a 40% longer time to withdrawal of life-sustaining treatments," they reported.

This is the first evidence to suggest that how a doctor guides family members through the foreign territory of critical illness may influence their ability to act as surrogates, according to senior investigator Douglas B. White, MD, MAS, associate professor and director of the Program on Ethics and Decision-Making in Critical Illness, Department of Critical Care Medicine, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the Graduate School of Public Health.

Researchers surveyed 230 caregivers who were making decisions on behalf of incapacitated patients on ventilators with greater than a 50 percent chance of dying from their illnesses.  They found caregivers who hadn't had a prior conversation with patients about treatment preferences were less confident about making decisions and it took them 40 percent longer--33 days versus 21 days--to decide to discontinue life support.

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