Systematic review: the effect on surrogates of making treatment decisions for others

Ann Intern Med. 2011 Mar 1;154(5):336-46. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-154-5-201103010-00008.


Background: Clinical practice relies on surrogates to make or help to make treatment decisions for incapacitated adults; however, the effect of this practice on surrogates has not been evaluated.

Purpose: To assess the effect on surrogates of making treatment decisions for adults who cannot make their own decisions.

Data sources: Empirical studies published in English and listed in MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, BIOETHICSLINE, PsycINFO, or Scopus before 1 July 2010.

Study selection: Eligible studies provided quantitative or qualitative empirical data, by evaluating surrogates, regarding the effect on surrogates of making treatment decisions for an incapacitated adult.

Data extraction: Information on study location, number and type of surrogates, timing of data collection, type of decisions, patient setting, methods, main findings, and limitations.

Data synthesis: 40 studies, 29 using qualitative and 11 using quantitative methods, provided data on 2854 surrogates, more than one half of whom were family members of the patient. Most surrogates were surveyed several months to years after making treatment decisions, the majority of which were end-of-life decisions. The quantitative studies found that at least one third of surrogates experienced a negative emotional burden as the result of making treatment decisions. The qualitative studies reported that many or most surrogates experienced negative emotional burden. The negative effects on surrogates were often substantial and typically lasted months or, in some cases, years. The most common negative effects cited by surrogates were stress, guilt over the decisions they made, and doubt regarding whether they had made the right decisions. Nine of the 40 studies also reported beneficial effects on a few surrogates, the most common of which were supporting the patient and feeling a sense of satisfaction. Knowing which treatment is consistent with the patient's preferences was frequently cited as reducing the negative effect on surrogates.

Limitations: Thirty-two of the 40 articles reported data collected in the United States. Because the study populations were relatively homogenous, it is unclear whether the findings apply to other groups. In some cases, the effect of making treatment decisions could not be isolated from that of other stressors, such as grief or prognostic uncertainty. Nine of the studies had a response rate less than 50%, and 9 did not report a response rate. Many of the studies had a substantial interval between the treatment decisions and data collection.

Conclusion: Making treatment decisions has a negative emotional effect on at least one third of surrogates, which is often substantial and typically lasts months (or sometimes years). Future research should evaluate ways to reduce this burden, including methods to identify which treatment options are consistent with the patient's preferences.

Primary funding source: National Institutes of Health.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Advance Directives
  • Anxiety / etiology
  • Caregivers / psychology*
  • Decision Making*
  • Family / psychology
  • Guilt
  • Humans
  • Patient Preference
  • Stress, Psychological / etiology*
  • Terminal Care / psychology