Training Surgeons and Anesthesiologists to Facilitate End-of-Life Conversations With Patients and Families: A Systematic Review of Existing Educational Models

J Surg Educ. May-Jun 2018;75(3):702-721. doi: 10.1016/j.jsurg.2017.08.006. Epub 2017 Sep 20.


Objective: Despite caring for patients near the end-of-life (EOL), surgeons and anesthesiologists report low confidence in their ability to facilitate EOL conversations. This discrepancy exists despite competency requirements and professional medical society recommendations. The objective of this systematic review is to identify articles describing EOL communication training available to surgeons and anesthesiologists, and to assess their methodological rigor to inform future curricular design and evaluation.

Methods: This PRISMA-concordant systematic review identified English-language articles from PubMed, EMBASE, and manual review. Eligible articles included viewpoint pieces, and observational, qualitative, or case studies that featured an educational intervention for surgeons or anesthesiologists on EOL communication skills. Data on the study objective, setting, design, participants, intervention, and results were extracted and analyzed. The Newcastle-Ottawa Scale was used to assess methodological quality.

Results: Database and manual search returned 2710 articles. A total of 2268 studies were screened by title and abstract, 46 reviewed in full-text, and 16 included in the final analysis. Fifteen studies were conducted exclusively in academic hospitals. Two studies included attending surgeons as participants; all others featured residents, fellows, or a mix thereof. Fifteen studies used simulated role-playing to teach and assess EOL communication skills. Measured outcomes included knowledge, attitudes, confidence, self-rated or observer-rated communication skills, and curriculum feedback; significance of results varied widely. Most studies lacked adequate methodological quality and appropriate control groups to be confident about the significance and applicability of their results.

Conclusions: There are few quality studies evaluating EOL communication training for surgeons and anesthesiologists. These programs frequently use role-playing to teach and assess EOL communication skills. More studies are needed to evaluate the effect of these interventions on patient outcomes. However, evaluating the effectiveness of these initiatives poses methodological challenges.

Keywords: Interpersonal and Communication Skills; anesthesia; communication; education; end-of-life; interpersonal skills; surgery.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anesthesiologists / education*
  • Clinical Competence
  • Communication*
  • Family Relations
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Models, Educational
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Surgeons / education*
  • Terminal Care / organization & administration*