Surrogate decision-makers' perspectives on discussing prognosis in the face of uncertainty

Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2009 Jan 1;179(1):48-53. doi: 10.1164/rccm.200806-969OC. Epub 2008 Oct 17.


Rationale: Many physicians are reluctant to discuss a patient's prognosis when there is significant prognostic uncertainty.

Objectives: We sought to understand surrogate decision makers' views regarding whether physicians should discuss prognosis in the face of uncertainty.

Methods: We conducted semi-structured interviews with 179 surrogates for 142 incapacitated patients at high risk of death in four intensive care units at an academic medical center. The interviews explored surrogates' attitudes about whether physicians should discuss prognosis when they cannot be certain their prognostic estimates are correct. We used constant comparative methods to analyze the transcripts. Validation methods included triangulation by multidisciplinary analysis and member checking.

Measurements and main results: Eighty-seven percent (155/179) of surrogates wanted physicians to discuss an uncertain prognosis. We identified five main reasons for this, including surrogates' belief that prognostic uncertainty is unavoidable, that physicians are their only source for prognostic information, and that discussing prognostic uncertainty leaves room for realistic hope, increases surrogates' trust in the physician, and signals a need to prepare for possible bereavement. Twelve percent (22/179) of surrogates felt that discussions about an uncertain prognosis should be avoided. The main explanation was that it is not worth the potential emotional distress if the prognostications are incorrect. Surrogates suggested that physicians should explicitly discuss uncertainty when prognosticating.

Conclusions: The majority of surrogates of patients that are critically ill want physicians to disclose their prognostic estimates even if they cannot be certain they are correct. This stems from surrogates' belief that prognostic uncertainty is simultaneously unavoidable and acceptable.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Caregivers*
  • Critical Care
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Professional-Family Relations
  • Prognosis*
  • Uncertainty*