Introduction: Neurologists are often asked to define prognosis in comatose patients. However, comatose patients following cardiac arrest are usually cared for by cardiologists or intensivists, and it is their approach that will influence decisions regarding withdrawal of life-sustaining interventions (WLSI). We observed that factors leading to these decisions vary across specialties and considered whether they could result in self-fulfilling prophecies and early WLSI. We conducted a hypothesis-generating qualitative study to identify factors used by non-neurologists to define prognosis in these patients and construct an explanatory model for how early WLSI might occur.
Methods: This was a single-center qualitative study of intensivists caring for cardiac arrest patients with hypoxic-ischemic coma. Thirty attending physicians (n = 16) and fellows (n = 14) from cardiac (n = 8), medical (n = 6), surgical (n = 10), and neuro (n = 6) intensive care units underwent semi-structured interviews. Interview transcripts were analyzed using grounded theory techniques.
Results: We found three components of early WLSI among non-neurointensivists: (1) development of fixed negative opinions; (2) early framing of poor clinical pictures to families; and (3) shortened windows for judging recovery potential. In contrast to neurointensivists, non-neurointensivists' negative opinions were frequently driven by patients' lack of consciousness and cardiopulmonary resuscitation circumstances. Both groups were influenced by age and comorbidities.
Conclusions: The results demonstrate that factors influencing prognostication differ across specialties. Some differ from those recommended by published guidelines and may lead to self-fulfilling prophecies and early WLSI. Better understanding of this framework would facilitate educational interventions to mitigate this phenomenon and its implications on patient care.
Keywords: Cardiac arrest; Coma; Decision-making; Hypoxic-ischemic injury; Prognostication; Withholding treatment.