TRIAD VI: how well do emergency physicians understand Physicians Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment (POLST) forms?

J Patient Saf. 2015 Mar;11(1):1-8. doi: 10.1097/PTS.0000000000000165.


Background: Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) documents are active medical orders to be followed with intention to bridge treatment across health care systems. We hypothesized that these forms can be confusing and jeopardize patient safety.

Objectives: The aim of this study was to determine whether POLST documents are confusing in the emergency department setting and how confusion impacts the provision or withholding of lifesaving interventions.

Methods: Members of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians were surveyed between September and October 2013. Respondents were to determine code status and treatment decisions in scenarios of critically ill patients with POLST documents who emergently arrest. Combinations of resuscitations (do not resuscitate [DNR], cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and levels of treatment (full, limited, comfort measures) were represented. Responses were summarized as percentages and analyzed by subgroup using the Fisher exact test. P = 0.05 was considered significant. We defined confusion in response as absence of consensus (supermajority of 95%).

Results: Our response rate was 26% (223/855). For scenarios specifying DNR and either full or limited treatment, most chose DNR (59%-84%) and 25% to 75% chose resuscitation. When the POLST specified DNR with comfort measures, 90% selected DNR and withheld resuscitation. When cardiopulmonary resuscitation/full treatment was presented, 95% selected "full code" and resuscitation. Physician age and experience significantly affected response rates; prior POLST education had no impact. In most scenarios depicted, responses reflected confusion over its interpretation.

Conclusions: Significant confusion exists among members of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians regarding the use of POLST in critically ill patients. This confusion poses risk to patient safety. Additional training and/or safeguards are needed to allow patient choice as well as protect their safety.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Advance Directives*
  • Clinical Competence*
  • Comprehension*
  • Data Collection
  • Emergency Medicine*
  • Emergency Service, Hospital
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pennsylvania
  • Prospective Studies
  • Resuscitation Orders*