Advance directives for medical care--a case for greater use

N Engl J Med. 1991 Mar 28;324(13):889-95. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199103283241305.


BACKGROUND. Advance directives for medical care and the designation of proxy decision makers to guide medical care after a patient has become incompetent have been widely advocated but little studied. We investigated the attitudes of patients toward planning, perceived barriers to such planning, treatment preferences in four hypothetical scenarios, and the feasibility of using a particular document (the Medical Directive) in the outpatient setting to specify advance directives.

Methods: We surveyed 405 outpatients of 30 primary care physicians at Massachusetts General Hospital and 102 members of the general public in Boston and asked them as part of the survey to complete the Medical Directive.

Results: Advance directives were desired by 93 percent of the outpatients and 89 percent of the members of the general public (P greater than 0.2). Both the young and the healthy subgroups expressed at least as much interest in planning as those older than 65 and those in fair-to-poor health. Of the perceived barriers to issuing advance directives, the lack of physician initiative was among the most frequently mentioned, and the disturbing nature of the topic was among the least. The outpatients refused life-sustaining treatments in 71 percent of their responses to options in the four scenarios (coma with chance of recovery, 57 percent; persistent vegetative state, 85 percent; dementia, 79 percent; and dementia with a terminal illness, 87 percent), with small differences between widely differing types of treatments. Specific treatment preferences could not be usefully predicted according to age, self-rated state of health, or other demographic features. Completing the Medical Directive took a median of 14 minutes.

Conclusions: When people are asked to imagine themselves incompetent with a poor prognosis, they decide against life-sustaining treatments about 70 percent of the time. Health, age, or other demographic features cannot be used, however, to predict specific preferences. Advance directives as part of a comprehensive approach such as that provided by the Medical Directive are desired by most people, require physician initiative, and can be achieved during a regular office visit.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Advance Directives / statistics & numerical data*
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Attitude to Health*
  • Boston
  • Cohort Studies
  • Hospital Bed Capacity, 500 and over
  • Humans
  • Life Support Care / statistics & numerical data*
  • Middle Aged
  • Outpatients
  • Public Opinion
  • Surveys and Questionnaires