Background: At some point in time, many patients with end-stage COPD require intubation and mechanical ventilation (MV) to sustain life. MV decisions are most effective when the patient and physician have discussed the options in advance. The purpose of this study was to examine how the physician perceives the decision-making process.
Methods: Fifteen respirologists were interviewed to elicit information regarding intubation and MV, and the exchange of information between patients and physicians. Emergent themes were coded using a qualitative approach and were verified by a blinded researcher.
Results: Respondents included ten academic and five community-based respirologists from seven hospitals. Most physicians were men with between 4 and 37 years experience. Narratives were very similar in content and seemed well rehearsed. Approach and delivery, however, were unique to each physician. Fourteen respirologists emphasized the importance of knowing patients as individuals prior to initiating this discussion. This period of familiarization often dictated when the physician believed the ventilation discussion is appropriate. Individual physician comfort also appeared to affect the timing of the discussion. Physicians discussed the many elements that make the MV discussion difficult for physicians and patients. Intubation details included a tube being placed down the throat, the discomfort associated with the tube, the inability to speak, and the availability of pain reducing medication. All physicians discussed the possibility of death with their patients, although many preferred euphemisms in initial discussions. All physicians indicated that intubation is presented as the patient's choice. However, all but one physician commonly framed their discussions in order to influence patient choice. The positive or negative framing seemed contingent on the physician's expectations for that patient.
Conclusions: Our interviews demonstrated considerable agreement between physicians about the content and timing of the intubation MV discussion. Physicians all agreed that knowing the patient and his or her situation was important in determining the timing of the intubation and MV discussion. Practice style and individual physician comfort with end-of-life decisions may influence the timing of the discussion and possibly the number of patients who are finally approached. All physicians advocated a shared decision-making approach, but they strongly influence the deliberation process. Thus, the decision-making model seemed to be physician driven in this study.