Perspectives on Care at the Close of Life
Clinician's Corner
March 16, 2005

Dealing With Conflict in Caring for the Seriously Ill“It Was Just Out of the Question”

Author Affiliations

Perspectives on Care at the Close of Life Section Editor: Margaret A. Winker, MD, Deputy Editor, JAMA.


Author Affiliations: Department of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle (Dr Back), and Department of Medicine, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pa (Dr Arnold).

JAMA. 2005;293(11):1374-1381. doi:10.1001/jama.293.11.1374

Physicians often assume that conflict is undesirable and destructive, yet conflict handled well can be productive, and the clarity that results can lead to clearer decision making and greater family, patient, and clinician satisfaction. We review the course of Mrs B, an 84-year-old woman with advanced dementia and an advance directive stating no artificial hydration or nutrition. Over the course of her illness, her family and physicians had conflicting opinions about the use of short-term tube feeding and intravenous hydration in her care. We describe the conflicts that arose between her physicians and family and a typology of conflicts common in care of patients who are seriously ill (family vs team, team member vs team member). Drawing from the business, psychology, and mediation literature, we describe useful communication tools and common pitfalls. We outline a step-wise approach that physicians can use to deal with conflicts and the use of treatment trials as a strategy to address conflicts about the use of life-sustaining medical interventions.