A prospective study of advance directives for life-sustaining care

N Engl J Med. 1991 Mar 28;324(13):882-8. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199103283241304.


Background: The use of advance directives is recommended so that people can determine the medical care they will receive when they are no longer competent, but the effectiveness of such directives is not clear.

Methods: In a prospective study conducted over a two-year period, 126 competent residents of a nursing home and 49 family members of incompetent patients were interviewed to determine their preferences with respect to hospitalization, intensive care, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, artificial ventilation, surgery, and tube feeding in the event of critical illness, terminal illness, or permanent unconsciousness. Advance directives, consisting of signed statements of treatment preferences, were placed in the medical record to assist in care in the nursing home and to be forwarded to the hospital if necessary.

Results: In an analysis of 96 outcome events (hospitalization or death in the nursing home), care was consistent with previously expressed wishes 75 percent of the time; however, the presence of the written advance directive in the medical record did not facilitate consistency. Among the 24 events in which inconsistencies occurred, care was provided more aggressively than had been requested in 6 cases, largely because of unanticipated surgery or artificial ventilation, and less aggressively than requested in 18, largely because hospitalization or cardiopulmonary resuscitation was withheld. Inconsistencies were more likely in the nursing home than in the hospital. CONCLUSIONS. The effectiveness of written advance directives is limited by inattention to them and by decisions to place priority on considerations other than the patient's autonomy. Since our study was performed in only one nursing home and one hospital, other studies are necessary to determine the generalizability of our findings.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Advance Directives / statistics & numerical data*
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Female
  • Forms and Records Control
  • Hospitalization
  • Humans
  • Life Support Care / statistics & numerical data*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • North Carolina
  • Nursing Homes
  • Outcome and Process Assessment, Health Care / statistics & numerical data*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Resuscitation
  • Surveys and Questionnaires