Background: Studies using local samples suggest that racial minorities anticipate a greater preference for life-sustaining treatment when faced with a terminal illness. These studies are limited by size, representation, and insufficient exploration of sociocultural covariables.
Objective: To explore racial and ethnic differences in concerns and preferences for medical treatment at the end of life in a national sample, adjusting for sociocultural covariables.
Design: Dual-language (English/Spanish), mixed-mode (telephone/mail) survey.
Participants: A total of 2,847 of 4,610 eligible community-dwelling Medicare beneficiaries age 65 or older on July 1, 2003 (62% response).
Measurements: Demographics, education, financial strain, health status, social networks, perceptions of health-care access, quality, and the effectiveness of mechanical ventilation (MV), and concerns and preferences for medical care in the event the respondent had a serious illness and less than 1 year to live.
Results: Respondents included 85% non-Hispanic whites, 4.6% Hispanics, 6.3% blacks, and 4.2% "other" race/ethnicity. More blacks (18%) and Hispanics (15%) than whites (8%) want to die in the hospital; more blacks (28%) and Hispanics (21.2%) than whites (15%) want life-prolonging drugs that make them feel worse all the time; fewer blacks (49%) and Hispanics (57%) than whites (74%) want potentially life-shortening palliative drugs, and more blacks (24%, 36%) and Hispanics (22%, 29%) than whites (13%, 21%) want MV for life extension of 1 week or 1 month, respectively. In multivariable analyses, sociodemographic variables, preference for specialists, and an overly optimistic belief in the effectiveness of MV explained some of the greater preferences for life-sustaining drugs and mechanical ventilation among non-whites. Black race remained an independent predictor of concern about receiving too much treatment [adjusted OR = 2.0 (1.5-2.7)], preference for dying in a hospital [AOR = 2.3 (1.6-3.2)], receiving life-prolonging drugs [1.9 (1.4-2.6)], MV for 1 week [2.3 (1.6-3.3)] or 1 month's [2.1 (1.6-2.9)] life extension, and a preference not to take potentially life-shortening palliative drugs [0.4 (0.3-0.5)]. Hispanic ethnicity remained an independent predictor of preference for dying in the hospital [2.2 (1.3-4.0)] and against potentially life-shortening palliative drugs [0.5 (0.3-0.7)].
Conclusions: Greater preference for intensive treatment near the end of life among minority elders is not explained fully by confounding sociocultural variables. Still, most Medicare beneficiaries in all race/ethnic groups prefer not to die in the hospital, to receive life-prolonging drugs that make them feel worse all the time, or to receive MV.