Background: Alleviating the problems faced by dying persons and their families has drawn substantial public attention, but little is known about the experience of dying.
Objective: To characterize the experience of dying from the perspective of surrogate decision makers, usually close family members (89%).
Design: Prospective cohort study.
Setting: Five teaching hospitals.
Patients: Persons who had one of nine serious medical conditions or were 80 years of age or older who died and for whom a surrogate decision maker completed an interview about the death.
Measurements: Medical records were reviewed and surrogate decision makers were interviewed.
Results: 4124 of 9105 seriously ill patients died (46%); 408 of 1176 elderly patients died (35%). The patients' family members were interviewed after 3357 persons (73%) had died. Of 1541 patients who survived the enrollment hospitalization, 46% died during a later hospitalization. In the last 3 days of life, 55% of patients were conscious. Among these patients, pain, dyspnea, and fatigue were prevalent. Four in 10 patients had severe pain most of the time. Severe fatigue affected almost 8 in 10 patients. More than 1 in 4 patients had moderate dysphoria. Sixty-three percent of patients had difficulty tolerating physical or emotional symptoms. Overall, 11% of patients had a final resuscitation attempt. A ventilator was used in one fourth of patients, and a feeding tube was used in four tenths of patients. Most patients (59%) were reported to prefer a treatment plan that focused on comfort, but care was reported to be contrary to the preferred approach in 10% of cases.
Conclusions: Most elderly and seriously ill patients died in acute care hospitals. Pain and other symptoms were commonplace and troubling to patients. Family members believed that patients preferred comfort, but life-sustaining treatments were often used. These findings indicate important opportunities to improve the care of dying patients.