Special Communication
December 2014

Communication About Serious Illness Care GoalsA Review and Synthesis of Best Practices

Rachelle E. Bernacki, MD, MS1,2,3,4; Susan D. Block, MD1,2,4,5; for the American College of Physicians High Value Care Task Force
Author Affiliations
  • 1Division of Adult Palliative Care, Department of Psychosocial Oncology and Palliative Care, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, Massachusetts
  • 2Ariadne Labs, Brigham and Women's Hospital & Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts
  • 3Division of Aging, Department of Medicine, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts
  • 4Center for Palliative Care, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts
  • 5Departments of Psychiatry and Medicine, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts

Copyright 2014 American Medical Association. All Rights Reserved. Applicable FARS/DFARS Restrictions Apply to Government Use.

JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(12):1994-2003. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.5271

An understanding of patients’ care goals in the context of a serious illness is an essential element of high-quality care, allowing clinicians to align the care provided with what is most important to the patient. Early discussions about goals of care are associated with better quality of life, reduced use of nonbeneficial medical care near death, enhanced goal-consistent care, positive family outcomes, and reduced costs. Existing evidence does not support the commonly held belief that communication about end-of-life issues increases patient distress. However, conversations about care goals are often conducted by physicians who do not know the patient, do not routinely address patients’ nonmedical goals, and often fail to provide patients with sufficient information about prognosis to allow appropriate decisions; in addition, they tend to occur so late in the patient’s illness that their impact on care processes is reduced. This article (1) reviews the evidence and describes best practices in conversations about serious illness care goals and (2) offers practical advice for clinicians and health care systems about developing a systematic approach to quality and timing of such communication to assure that each patient has a personalized serious illness care plan. Best practices in discussing goals of care include the following: sharing prognostic information, eliciting decision-making preferences, understanding fears and goals, exploring views on trade-offs and impaired function, and wishes for family involvement. Several interventions hold promise in systematizing conversations with patients about serious illness care goals: better education of physicians; systems to identify and trigger early discussions for appropriate patients; patient and family education; structured formats to guide discussions; dedicated, structured sections in the electronic health record for recording information; and continuous measurement. We conclude that communication about serious illness care goals is an intervention that should be systematically integrated into our clinical care structures and processes.