Objectives: Although discussing a prognosis is a duty of physicians caring for critically ill patients, little is known about surrogate decision-makers' beliefs about physicians' ability to prognosticate. We sought to determine: 1) surrogates' beliefs about whether physicians can accurately prognosticate for critically ill patients; and 2) how individuals use prognostic information in their role as surrogate decision-makers.
Design, setting, and patients: Multicenter study in intensive care units of a public hospital, a tertiary care hospital, and a veterans' hospital. We conducted semistructured interviews with 50 surrogate decision-makers of critically ill patients. We analyzed the interview transcripts using grounded theory methods to inductively develop a framework to describe surrogates' beliefs about physicians' ability to prognosticate. Validation methods included triangulation by multidisciplinary analysis and member checking.
Measurements and main results: Overall, 88% (44 of 50) of surrogates expressed doubt about physicians' ability to prognosticate for critically ill patients. Four distinct themes emerged that explained surrogates' doubts about prognostic accuracy: a belief that God could alter the course of the illness, a belief that predicting the future is inherently uncertain, prior experiences where physicians' prognostications were inaccurate, and experiences with prognostication during the patient's intensive care unit stay. Participants also identified several factors that led to belief in physicians' prognostications, such as receiving similar prognostic estimates from multiple physicians and prior experiences with accurate prognostication. Surrogates' doubts about prognostic accuracy did not prevent them from wanting prognostic information. Instead, most surrogate decision-makers view physicians' prognostications as rough estimates that are valuable in informing decisions, but are not determinative. Surrogates identified the act of prognostic disclosure as a key step in preparing emotionally and practically for the possibility that a patient may not survive.
Conclusions: Although many surrogate decision-makers harbor some doubt about the accuracy of physicians' prognostications, they highly value discussions about prognosis and use the information for multiple purposes.