How clinicians discuss critically ill patients' preferences and values with surrogates: an empirical analysis

Crit Care Med. 2015 Apr;43(4):757-64. doi: 10.1097/CCM.0000000000000772.


Objectives: Although shared decision making requires clinicians to discuss the patient's values and preferences, little is known about the extent to which this occurs with surrogates in ICUs. We sought to assess whether and how clinicians talk with surrogates about incapacitated patients' preferences and values.

Design: Prospective, cross-sectional study.

Setting: Five ICUs of two hospitals.

Subjects: Fifty-four physicians and 159 surrogates for 71 patients.

Interventions: We audio-recorded 71 conferences in which clinicians and surrogates discussed life-sustaining treatment decisions for an incapacitated patient near the end of life. Two coders independently coded each instance in which clinicians or surrogates discussed the patient's previously expressed treatment preferences or values. They subcoded for values that are commonly important to patients near the end of life. They also coded treatment recommendations by clinicians that incorporated the patient's preferences or values.

Measurements and main results: In 30% of conferences, there was no discussion about the patient's previously expressed preferences or values. In 37%, clinicians and surrogates discussed both the patient's treatment preferences and values. In the remaining 33%, clinicians and surrogates discussed either the patient's treatment preferences or values, but not both. In more than 88% of conferences, there was no conversation about the patient's values regarding autonomy and independence, emotional well-being and relationships, physical function, cognitive function, or spirituality. On average, 3.8% (SD, 4.3; range, 0-16%) of words spoken pertained to patient preferences or values.

Conclusions: In roughly a third of ICU family conferences for patients at high risk of death, neither clinicians nor surrogates discussed patients' preferences or values about end-of-life decision making. In less than 12% of conferences did participants address values of high importance to most patients, such as cognitive and physical function. Interventions are needed to ensure patients' values and preferences are elicited and integrated into end-of-life decisions in ICUs.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Communication*
  • Critical Care
  • Critical Illness*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Decision Making
  • Family
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Intensive Care Units
  • Life Support Care
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Patient Preference*
  • Professional-Family Relations*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Value of Life
  • Video Recording