Making decisions for hospitalized older adults: ethical factors considered by family surrogates

J Clin Ethics. 2013 Summer;24(2):125-34.


Background: Hospitalized older adults frequently have impaired cognition and must rely on surrogates to make major medical decisions. Ethical standards for surrogate decision making are well delineated, but little is known about what factors surrogates actually consider when making decisions.

Objectives: To determine factors surrogate decision makers consider when making major medical decisions for hospitalized older adults, and whether or not they adhere to established ethical standards.

Design: Semi-structured interview study of the experience and process of decision making.

Setting: A public safety-net hospital and a tertiary referral hospital in a large city in the Midwest United States.

Participants: The study included 35 surrogates with a recent decision-making experience for an inpatient aged 65 or older.

Measurements: The key factors that surrogates considered when making decisions. Interview transcripts were coded and analyzed using the grounded theory method of qualitative analysis.

Results: Surrogates considered patient-centered factors and surrogate-centered factors. Patient-centered factors included: (1) respecting the patient's input, (2) using past knowledge of the patient to infer the patient's wishes, and (3) considering what is in the patient's best interests. Some surrogates expressed a desire for more information about the patient's prior wishes. Surrogate-centered factors included: (1) surrogate's wishes as a guide, (2) surrogate's religious beliefs and/or spirituality, (3) surrogate's interests, and (4) family consensus.

Conclusion: Our study indicates that surrogate decision making is more complex than the standard ethical models, which are limited to considerations of the patient's autonomy and beneficence. Because surrogates also imagine what they would want under the circumstances and consider their own needs and preferences, models of surrogate decision making must account for these additional considerations. Surrogates' desire for more information about patients' preferences suggests a need for greater advance care planning.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Advance Care Planning / ethics*
  • Advance Directives / ethics
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Black or African American / psychology
  • Black or African American / statistics & numerical data
  • Caregivers* / ethics
  • Caregivers* / psychology
  • Choice Behavior / ethics
  • Consensus
  • Decision Making / ethics*
  • Educational Status
  • Female
  • Hospitalization*
  • Humans
  • Inpatients*
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Midwestern United States
  • Narration
  • Religion
  • Spirituality
  • Terminal Care / ethics
  • Third-Party Consent / ethics*
  • White People / psychology
  • White People / statistics & numerical data