Background: The German Advance Directives Act of 2009 confirms that advance directives (ADs) are binding. Little is known, however, about their prevalence in nursing homes, their quality, and whether they are honored.
Methods: In 2007, we carried out a cross-sectional survey in all 11 nursing homes of a German city in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (total nursing home population, 1089 residents). The ADs were formally analyzed and assessed by 3 raters with respect to 5 clinical decision-making scenarios. The specifications of the ADs were compared with what the nurses reported that they would do in each scenario.
Results: 11% of the nursing home residents had a personal AD, and a further 1.4% an AD by proxy. 52% of the 119 ADs that we analyzed contained no documentation of the patient's decision-making capacity and/or voluntariness, and only 3% contained documentation of a medical consultation. Most ADs failed to state what should be done in case the patient acutely became incapable of consenting to treatment (inter-rater agreement [IRA] >83%). For the case of permanent decisional incapacity, many ADs contained ambiguous information (IRA<43%). 23 directives stated that the patient should not have cardiopulmonary resuscitation in case an arrest occurred in the patient's current clinical condition, but the nurses reported a corresponding do-not-resuscitate agreement for only 9 of these 23 patients.
Conclusion: In 2007, ADs were rare in these German nursing homes, and most of the existing ones were invalid, of little meaning, and/or disregarded by the nursing staff. There is little reason to believe that the Advance Directives Act of 2009 will bring about any major change in this miserable status quo. Advance care planning, a system-oriented concept still uncommon in Germany, could give new impulses to promote a cultural change in this respect.