Differences in end-of-life decision making among black and white ambulatory cancer patients

J Gen Intern Med. 1996 Nov;11(11):651-6. doi: 10.1007/BF02600155.


Objective: African-American (black) and white individuals have been shown to differ in their desire for life-sustaining treatments and their use of living wills for end-of-life care, but the reasons for these differences are unclear. This study was designed to test the hypothesis that these ethnic differences exist because black patients trust the health care system less, fear inadequate medical treatment more, and feel less confident that living wills can give them more control over their terminal care.

Design: Cross-sectional, in-person survey conducted from November 1993 to June 1994.

Setting: Two medical oncology clinics with 40% to 50% black patient representation.

Participants: Ambulatory cancer patients, 92 black and 114 white, who were awaiting their physician visits and agreed to participate (76% of those eligible). Patients were excluded if they were under age 40 or if they had nonmelanoma skin cancer only.

Measurements and main results: Black ambulatory cancer patients wanted more life-sustaining treatments (odds ratio [OR] 2.8; 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.4-5.3), and were less likely to want to complete a living will at some time in the future (OR 0.36; 95% CI 0.17-0.75) than were white patients after controlling for socioeconomic variables. However, these differences were not related to lack of trust or fear of inadequate medical treatment in this study population. Both groups of patients trusted the health care system and felt that physicians treated patients equally well. Neither group feared inadequate or excessive medical care, and the majority of both groups agreed that living wills would help them keep control over their terminal care.

Conclusions: Black and white cancer patients make different end-of-life choices, even after adjusting for likely explanatory variables. The other factors that influence decision making remain unclear and need to be further explored if physicians are to understand and help their patients make choices for end-of-life care.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • African Americans / psychology*
  • Aged
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Decision Making*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Living Wills
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms / ethnology
  • Neoplasms / psychology*
  • Outpatients / psychology*
  • Patient Acceptance of Health Care
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Terminal Care*
  • Whites / psychology*