Importance: Patients with chronic illness frequently use Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) to document treatment limitations.
Objectives: To evaluate the association between POLST order for medical interventions and intensive care unit (ICU) admission for patients hospitalized near the end of life.
Design, setting, and participants: Retrospective cohort study of patients with POLSTs and with chronic illness who died between January 1, 2010, and December 31, 2017, and were hospitalized 6 months or less before death in a 2-hospital academic health care system.
Exposures: POLST order for medical interventions ("comfort measures only" vs "limited additional interventions" vs "full treatment"), age, race/ethnicity, education, days from POLST completion to admission, histories of cancer or dementia, and admission for traumatic injury.
Main outcomes and measures: The primary outcome was the association between POLST order and ICU admission during the last hospitalization of life; the secondary outcome was receipt of a composite of 4 life-sustaining treatments: mechanical ventilation, vasopressors, dialysis, and cardiopulmonary resuscitation. For evaluating factors associated with POLST-discordant care, the outcome was ICU admission contrary to POLST order for medical interventions during the last hospitalization of life.
Results: Among 1818 decedents (mean age, 70.8 [SD, 14.7] years; 41% women), 401 (22%) had POLST orders for comfort measures only, 761 (42%) had orders for limited additional interventions, and 656 (36%) had orders for full treatment. ICU admissions occurred in 31% (95% CI, 26%-35%) of patients with comfort-only orders, 46% (95% CI, 42%-49%) with limited-interventions orders, and 62% (95% CI, 58%-66%) with full-treatment orders. One or more life-sustaining treatments were delivered to 14% (95% CI, 11%-17%) of patients with comfort-only orders and to 20% (95% CI, 17%-23%) of patients with limited-interventions orders. Compared with patients with full-treatment POLSTs, those with comfort-only and limited-interventions orders were significantly less likely to receive ICU admission (comfort only: 123/401 [31%] vs 406/656 [62%], aRR, 0.53 [95% CI, 0.45-0.62]; limited interventions: 349/761 [46%] vs 406/656 [62%], aRR, 0.79 [95% CI, 0.71-0.87]). Across patients with comfort-only and limited-interventions POLSTs, 38% (95% CI, 35%-40%) received POLST-discordant care. Patients with cancer were significantly less likely to receive POLST-discordant care than those without cancer (comfort only: 41/181 [23%] vs 80/220 [36%], aRR, 0.60 [95% CI, 0.43-0.85]; limited interventions: 100/321 [31%] vs 215/440 [49%], aRR, 0.63 [95% CI, 0.51-0.78]). Patients with dementia and comfort-only orders were significantly less likely to receive POLST-discordant care than those without dementia (23/111 [21%] vs 98/290 [34%], aRR, 0.44 [95% CI, 0.29-0.67]). Patients admitted for traumatic injury were significantly more likely to receive POLST-discordant care (comfort only: 29/64 [45%] vs 92/337 [27%], aRR, 1.52 [95% CI, 1.08-2.14]; limited interventions: 51/91 [56%] vs 264/670 [39%], aRR, 1.36 [95% CI, 1.09-1.68]). In patients with limited-interventions orders, older age was significantly associated with less POLST-discordant care (aRR, 0.93 per 10 years [95% CI, 0.88-1.00]).
Conclusions and relevance: Among patients with POLSTs and with chronic life-limiting illness who were hospitalized within 6 months of death, treatment-limiting POLSTs were significantly associated with lower rates of ICU admission compared with full-treatment POLSTs. However, 38% of patients with treatment-limiting POLSTs received intensive care that was potentially discordant with their POLST.