The influence of treatment descriptions on advance medical directive decisions

J Am Geriatr Soc. 1992 Dec;40(12):1255-60. doi: 10.1111/j.1532-5415.1992.tb03652.x.


Objective: To determine whether the wording of the descriptions of life-sustaining interventions would affect the choices elderly patients make when completing advance directives.

Methods: Survey.

Setting: General community in Omaha, Nebraska.

Patients: Two hundred one community-dwelling elderly were selected from a population-based sample.

Main outcome measures: Subjects were asked whether they would accept or reject three life-sustaining interventions: cardiopulmonary resuscitation, mechanical ventilation, or tube feeding in three separate hypothetical case scenarios. The three life-sustaining interventions were each described positively, negatively, and exactly as they are worded in a widely used advance directive. Subjects reviewed each scenario three times with three different descriptions of the three interventions.

Results: For the three interventions presented in three scenarios, subjects opted for the intervention 12 percent of the time when it was presented negatively, 18 percent of the time when it was phrased as in an advance directive already in use and 30 percent of the time it was phrased positively. One hundred fifty-five of the 201 subjects (77 percent) changed their minds at least once when given the same scenario but a different description of the intervention. Of these 155, 33 percent changed decisions one to three times, 33 percent changed decisions four to seven times, and another 34 percent changed decisions eight to seventeen times based solely on the description of the intervention.

Conclusion: The decisions patients make about whether to accept or reject life-sustaining treatments are affected by the descriptions of the treatments. These findings emphasize the critical importance of doctor-patient consultation when patients execute advance directives.

MeSH terms

  • Advance Directives*
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Consent Forms
  • Decision Making
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Living Wills
  • Male
  • Nebraska
  • Patient Acceptance of Health Care*
  • Risk Assessment
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Terminology as Topic
  • Withholding Treatment*
  • Writing