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Soc Sci Med. 2006 Jan;62(1):125-33. Epub 2005 Jul 1.

Patients' and healthcare providers' understandings of life-sustaining treatment: are perceptions of goals shared or divergent?

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  • 1VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, Center for Health Equity Research and Promotion, University Drive C, Bldg. 28, Room 1A129, Pittsburgh, PA 15240-1000, USA.


In this cross-sectional qualitative study, researchers performed in-depth, semistructured interviews with 30 pairs of patients and their primary care providers in an outpatient clinic of a large, urban Veterans Affairs (VA) medical center in the United States. During audiotaped interviews to assess their understanding of advance directive concepts, participants were asked what "life-sustaining treatment" means to them and why they think of it in the way they do. The findings indicate that patients and providers in the United States tend to view and discuss life-sustaining treatment in terms of four goals for end-of-life care: (1) extending the length of life, (2) improving the quality of life, (3) maintaining or improving specific biological functions, and (4) assisting the body for a temporary period of time. Patients thought providers were more concerned with extending the length of life than with quality-based outcomes, and patients often discussed life-sustaining treatment as acceptable means for short-term but not long-term use. Many providers indicated that they struggle with conflicting quality-based and physiologic care goals. The findings highlight the importance of eliciting patient preferences not only for specific types of treatment, such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation, but also for end-of-life care goals or desired health-related outcomes, such as maximizing the quantity of life. The findings also suggest that advance directives and patient-provider discussions that focus on acceptable health states and valued life activities may be better suited to patients' end-of-life care goals than those that focus on specific medical interventions.

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