Controlling death: the false promise of advance directives

Ann Intern Med. 2007 Jul 3;147(1):51-7. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-147-1-200707030-00008.


Advance directives promise patients a say in their future care but actually have had little effect. Many experts blame problems with completion and implementation, but the advance directive concept itself may be fundamentally flawed. Advance directives simply presuppose more control over future care than is realistic. Medical crises cannot be predicted in detail, making most prior instructions difficult to adapt, irrelevant, or even misleading. Furthermore, many proxies either do not know patients' wishes or do not pursue those wishes effectively. Thus, unexpected problems arise often to defeat advance directives, as the case in this paper illustrates. Because advance directives offer only limited benefit, advance care planning should emphasize not the completion of directives but the emotional preparation of patients and families for future crises. The existentialist Albert Camus might suggest that physicians should warn patients and families that momentous, unforeseeable decisions lie ahead. Then, when the crisis hits, physicians should provide guidance; should help make decisions despite the inevitable uncertainties; should share responsibility for those decisions; and, above all, should courageously see patients and families through the fearsome experience of dying.

MeSH terms

  • Advance Care Planning
  • Advance Directives*
  • Communication
  • Death*
  • Decision Making
  • Family Relations
  • Humans