Physicians' attitudes towards living wills and cardiopulmonary resuscitation

J Gen Intern Med. 1991 Jul-Aug;6(4):323-9. doi: 10.1007/BF02597430.


Objective: To determine whether a physician's familiarity with the living will directly relates to an expressed willingness to discuss resuscitation issues with patients.

Design: Survey of selected primary care and medical sub-specialist physicians most likely to care for seriously or terminally ill patients.

Setting: Private-practice clinicians practicing in an urban county.

Participants: Internists, family practitioners, cardiologists, oncologists, and neurologists in private practice.

Interventions: None.

Results: Almost all responding physicians (97.2%) knew of the living will, although few (13.5%) had executed one for themselves. Most were willing to keep a copy of their patients' living wills with their office records. However, only a few physicians (20%) indicated they routinely discussed extraordinary care issues with their patients. In fact, most (70%) reported they rarely or never discussed cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) with their patients. With terminally ill patients, physician initiative was greater: 69% reported discussing resuscitation preferences. Comparable discussions with elderly patients were undertaken only if the physician believed they would be warranted by the clinical circumstances. When questioned about their own sentiments towards resuscitation, most physicians indicated they would not want CPR if they were terminally ill (86%) or mentally incompetent (93%). A similar number (92%) would refuse artificial feeding if permanently comatose.

Conclusions: Many physicians recognize the importance of living wills as an expression of patient treatment preferences. Nevertheless, discussion of patient preferences is unlikely because of physicians' reluctance, except in limited circumstances, to initiate a dialogue about life-sustaining measures. Because patients also are often unwilling to begin such discussions, better methods of facilitating discussion of CPR and other extraordinary health care measures must be sought.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Humans
  • Living Wills*
  • Middle Aged
  • North Carolina
  • Personal Autonomy
  • Physician's Role*
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Resuscitation / psychology*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Withholding Treatment