Patients' knowledge of options at the end of life: ignorance in the face of death

JAMA. 2000 Nov 15;284(19):2483-8. doi: 10.1001/jama.284.19.2483.


Context: Effectiveness of legislation promoting advance directives and legalizing physician-assisted suicide depends on patients' understanding their legal options about end-of-life care. However, outpatients' understanding of their legal options at the end of life has not been studied.

Objectives: To estimate the percentage of outpatients who are informed about 4 areas relevant to end-of-life care: refusal and withdrawal of lifesaving treatments, physician-assisted suicide, active euthanasia, and double effect; and to determine whether authoring advance directives, experiencing illness, acting as a proxy for health care decisions, and caring for an ill loved one are associated with better knowledge in end-of-life care.

Design: Cross-sectional survey.

Setting and participants: One thousand consecutive English-speaking, adult patients attending 1 university-based internal medicine clinic and 3 community-based, university-affiliated, mixed internal medicine and family practice clinics in Oregon during May and June 1999.

Main outcome measures: Percentage of correct responses in the 4 topic areas and total knowledge score, adjusted for demographic (eg, age, race, educational level, income level, marital status) and experiential (eg, health, proxy decision making, advance directives, and death of a loved one) factors.

Results: Of the 1000 patients invited to participate, 728 (73%) consented and completed the questionnaire and were included in the analysis. A total of 69% of respondents answered correctly regarding refusal of treatment, 46% for withdrawal of treatment, 23% for assisted suicide, 32% for active euthanasia, and 41% for double effect. Sixty-two percent of respondents did not distinguish between assisted suicide and euthanasia. After adjustment for other covariates, better knowledge was significantly associated with white race (odds ratio [OR], 2.3; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.3-4.2), having at least a college degree (OR, 3.0; 95% CI, 1.4-6.7), and having been a proxy for health care decisions (OR, 1.8; 95% CI, 1.2-2.6). Personal experience with illness (OR, 1.0; 95% CI, 0.6-1.5), death or illness of a loved one (OR, 1.6; 95% CI, 1.0-2.7), and authoring an advance directive (OR,1.3; 95% CI, 0.9-2.0) were not associated with better knowledge.

Conclusions: A significant proportion of outpatients at university-affiliated clinics in Oregon appear to misunderstand options in end-of-life care. Our results suggest that greater public knowledge about end-of-life care is needed, and advance care planning must be preceded by education about options in end-of-life care. JAMA. 2000;284:2483-2488.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Advance Directives
  • Aged
  • Attitude to Death*
  • Comprehension*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Euthanasia
  • Euthanasia, Active, Voluntary
  • Euthanasia, Passive
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Oregon
  • Outpatients
  • Suicide, Assisted
  • Terminal Care*
  • Terminally Ill* / psychology
  • Treatment Refusal