Prognostic Uncertainty in Critically Ill Patients with Traumatic Brain Injury: A Multicenter Qualitative Study

Neurocrit Care. 2021 Oct;35(2):311-321. doi: 10.1007/s12028-021-01230-3. Epub 2021 Jun 2.


Background: Prognostic uncertainty is frequently cited as a barrier to communication between physicians and patients and is particularly burdensome for surrogate decision-makers, who must make choices on behalf of their incapacitated family members. The Conceptual Taxonomy of Uncertainty is one model through which physician and surrogate communication can be analyzed to identify strategies for reducing uncertainty in surrogate decision-making. Our objective was to examine themes of uncertainty in physician communication of prognosis and surrogate goals-of-care decision-making for critically ill patients with traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Methods: We performed a secondary analysis of a previous qualitative study that involved semistructured interviews of 16 surrogates of critically ill patients with TBI from two level 1 trauma centers and 20 TBI expert physicians from seven trauma centers. Open-ended questions about prognostic uncertainty were asked. We identified major themes with an inductive approach. The Conceptual Taxonomy of Uncertainty was applied to further characterize these themes as data-centered, system-centered, and patient-centered issues of uncertainty.

Results: Nearly all surrogates (15 of 16) and physicians (19 of 20) recognized the emotional burden of uncertainty in the decision-making process for surrogates. More than three quarters of surrogates (13 of 16) described instances in which a lack of information regarding their loved one's disease or prognosis created uncertainty in their decision-making process, identifying both positive and negative instances of prognostic communication by physicians. We found that physicians used one of three strategies to communicate prognostic uncertainty to surrogates: leaving no room for uncertainty, honesty about uncertainty, and range of possibilities. These strategies did not meet the communication preferences of the majority of surrogates, with more than a third of decision-makers (6 of 15) being frustrated by too much ambiguity about prognosis as well as the failure to acknowledge the existence of uncertainty.

Conclusions: We found that physician communication strategies rarely addressed surrogate needs regarding uncertainty adequately, suggesting an urgent need for future research into improved communication of prognostic uncertainty.

Keywords: Communication barriers; Intensive care units; Patient care planning; Shared decision-making; Terminal care; Traumatic brain injuries; Uncertainty.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Brain Injuries, Traumatic* / diagnosis
  • Brain Injuries, Traumatic* / therapy
  • Critical Illness*
  • Decision Making
  • Humans
  • Intensive Care Units
  • Prognosis
  • Uncertainty