How would terminally ill patients have others make decisions for them in the event of decisional incapacity? A longitudinal study

J Am Geriatr Soc. 2007 Dec;55(12):1981-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1532-5415.2007.01473.x. Epub 2007 Nov 20.


Objectives: To determine the role terminally ill patients would opt to have their loved ones and physicians play in healthcare decisions should they lose decision-making capacity and how this changes over time.

Design: Serial interviews.

Setting: The study institutions were The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore, Maryland, and St. Vincent's Hospital, in New York.

Participants: One hundred forty-seven patients with cancer, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or heart failure, at baseline and 3 and 6 months.

Results: Patients' baseline decision control preferences varied widely, but most opted for shared decision-making, leaning slightly toward independence from their loved ones. This did not change significantly at 3 or 6 months. Fifty-seven percent opted for the same degree of decision control at 3 months as at baseline. In a generalized estimating equation model adjusted for time, more-independent decision-making was associated with college education (P=.046) and being female (P=.01), whereas more-reliant decision-making was associated with age (P<.001). Patients leaned toward more reliance upon physicians to make best-interest determinations at diagnosis but opted for physicians to decide based upon their own independent wishes (substituted judgment) over time, especially if college educated.

Conclusion: Terminally ill patients vary in how much they wish their own preferences to control decisions made on their behalf, but most would opt for shared decision-making with loved ones and physicians. Control preferences are stable over time with respect to loved ones, but as they live longer with their illnesses, patients prefer somewhat less reliance upon physicians.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis / psychology
  • Choice Behavior
  • Decision Making*
  • Female
  • Heart Failure / psychology
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Mental Competency
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms / psychology
  • Regression Analysis
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Terminally Ill / psychology*
  • Third-Party Consent*