A Survey of Physicians' Attitudes toward Decision-Making Authority for Initiating and Withdrawing VA-ECMO: Results and Ethical Implications for Shared Decision Making

J Clin Ethics. Winter 2016;27(4):281-289. doi: 10.2217/bmm.10.117.

Abstract

Objective: Although patients exercise greater autonomy than in the past, and shared decision making is promoted as the preferred model for doctor-patient engagement, tensions still exist in clinical practice about the primary locus of decision-making authority for complex, scarce, and resource-intensive medical therapies: patients and their surrogates, or physicians. We assessed physicians' attitudes toward decisional authority for adult venoarterial extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (VA-ECMO), hypothesizing they would favor a medical locus.

Design, setting, participants: A survey of resident/fellow physicians and internal medicine attendings at an academic medical center, May to August 2013.

Measurements: We used a 24-item, internet-based survey assessing physician-respondents' demographic characteristics, knowledge, and attitudes regarding decisional authority for adult VA-ECMO. Qualitative narratives were also collected.

Main results: A total of 179 physicians completed the survey (15 percent response rate); 48 percent attendings and 52 percent residents/fellows. Only 32 percent of the respondents indicated that a surrogate's consent should be required to discontinue VA-ECMO; 56 percent felt that physicians should have the right to discontinue VA-ECMO over a surrogate's objection. Those who self-reported as "knowledgeable" about VA-ECMO, compared to those who did not, more frequently replied that there should not be presumed consent for VA-ECMO (47.6 percent versus 33.3 percent, p = 0.007), that physicians should have the right to discontinue VA-ECMO over a surrogate's objection (76.2 percent versus 50 percent, p = 0.02) and that, given its cost, the use of VA-ECMO should be restricted (81.0 percent versus 54.4 percent, p = 0.005).

Conclusions: Surveyed physicians, especially those who self-reported as knowledgeable about VA-ECMO and/or were specialists in pulmonary/critical care, favored a medical locus of decisional authority for VA-ECMO. VA-ECMO is complex, and the data may (1) reflect physicians' hesitance to cede authority to presumably less knowledgeable patients and surrogates, (2) stem from a stewardship of resources perspective, and/or (3) point to practical efforts to avoid futility and utility disputes. Whether these results indicate a more widespread reversion to paternalism or a more circumscribed usurping of decisional authority occasioned by VA-ECMO necessitates further study.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Decision Making*
  • Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Physicians*
  • Proxy
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Withholding Treatment / ethics*