Objective: Limited empirical research has examined how decisions are made when the preferences of terminally ill patients conflict with physicians' recommendations. This study sought to investigate physicians' strategies for resolving conflicts with dying patients.
Design: Cross-sectional, qualitative interviews.
Subjects: Subjects were 158 physicians caring for at least one terminally ill patient.
Setting: University medical center.
Measurements and main results: We analyzed physicians' responses to the open-ended interview questions, "How do you handle a situation when a patient wants a treatment that you believe does not provide any benefit?" and "How do you handle a situation when a patient does not want a treatment you think would be beneficial?" For patient requests of nonbeneficial treatments, physicians reported the following as important: negotiating with and educating patients (71%), deferring to patient requests for benign or uncomplicated treatments (34%), convincing patients to forgo treatments (33%), refusing patient requests for nonbeneficial treatment (22%), using family influence (16%), not offering futile treatments (13%), and referring to other physicians for disputed care (9%). Potential harm (23%) and cost of treatment (18%) were reasons cited for withholding treatments. In response to patient refusals of beneficial treatments, physicians report the following as important: negotiating with patients (59%), convincing patients to receive treatment (41%), assessing patient competence (32%), using family influence (27%), and referring to other physicians (21%).
Conclusions: Physicians vary in the communication and negotiation strategies they use when their medical judgment conflicts with dying patients' preferences. Medical ethicists could play a greater role in teaching ethically important communication skills. Physicians providing care at the end of life report strategies for respecting patients that reflect graduated degrees of accommodation tailored to the costliness and riskiness of requests; they are most accepting of patient requests for benign, technically easy, inexpensive, and medically effective treatments.