Background: This article reports on the concept of "communicating prognostic uncertainty" which emerged from a mixed methods survey asking family members to rank their satisfaction in seven domains of hospital end-of-life care.
Methods: Open-ended questions were embedded within a previously validated survey asking family members about satisfaction with end-of-life care. The purpose was to understand, in the participants' own words, the connection between their numerical rankings of satisfaction and the experience of care.
Results: Our study found that nearly half of all family members wanted more information about possible outcomes of care, including knowledge that the patient was "sick enough to die". Prognostic uncertainty was often poorly communicated, if at all. Inappropriate techniques included information being cloaked in confusing euphemisms, providing unwanted false hope, and incongruence between message and the aggressive level of care being provided. In extreme cases, these techniques left a legacy of uncertainty and suspicion. Family members expressed an awareness of both the challenges and benefits of communicating prognostic uncertainty. Most importantly, respondents who acknowledged that they would have resisted (or did) knowing that the patient was sick enough to die also expressed a retrospective understanding that they would have liked, and benefitted, from more prognostic information that death was a possible or probable outcome of the patient's admission. Family members who reported discussion of prognostic uncertainty also reported high levels of effective communication and satisfaction with care. They also reported long-term benefits of knowing the patient was sick enough to die.
Conclusion: While a patient who is sick enough to die may survive to discharge, foretelling with family members in potential end of life contexts facilitates the development of a shared and desired prognostic awareness that the patient is nearing end of life.
Keywords: Communication; End of life; Family members; Prognostic uncertainty.