May 1992

Agreement Between Patients and Their Self-selected Surrogates on Difficult Medical Decisions

Author Affiliations

From the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences (Drs Hare and Pratt), Oregon State University Extension Service (Dr Hare), and Program on Gerontology (Dr Pratt), Oregon State University, Corvallis; and Philomath (Ore) Family Medicine, P. C. (Dr Nelson).

Arch Intern Med. 1992;152(5):1049-1054. doi:10.1001/archinte.1992.00400170123023

Background.—  Several studies have demonstrated that surrogate decision makers often are unable to use substituted judgment when asked to make decisions for incompetent patients. This study further explored this question, using a relatively young, healthy sample of 50 patient/ surrogate pairs.

Methods. —  Patients were randomly recruited from a community family practice clinic and asked to select a surrogate. Five case vignettes were presented to patients and surrogates during separate interviews. Vignettes asked for decisions related to ventilation, resuscitation, and tube feeding for a patient in permanent coma, amputation as life-extending treatment for a mentally confused patient, and chemotherapy for a decisionally incapacitated patient with advanced cancer. Factors considered important to decision making were also investigated.

Results. —  As groups, patients and surrogates were similar as they chose to withdraw or continue treatment in the same proportions. However, within individual pairs, agreement on treatment occurred only 70% of the time even though surrogates were asked to base their treatment decisions on substituted judgment. The κ coefficients indicated that the rate of agreement in individual vignettes was low. Patients considered "burden on the family" and "time left to live" as the most important factors in choosing among difficult treatment options, while surrogates identified the patients' pain as the most important factor.

Conclusions.—  The high rate of discrepant decisions underscores the importance of effective patient-surrogate communication before medical decision-making incompetence occurs. The potential of increasing patient-surrogate agreement on difficult medical decisions by educational interventions should be explored.(Arch Intern Med. 1992;152:1049-1054)