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J Pain Symptom Manage. 2010 Mar;39(3):527-34. doi: 10.1016/j.jpainsymman.2009.07.012. Epub 2010 Feb 19.

Provider communication and patient understanding of life-limiting illness and their relationship to patient communication of treatment preferences.

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RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, California 90407, USA.


Medical decision making in the context of serious illness ideally involves a patient who understands his or her condition and prognosis and can effectively formulate and communicate his or her care preferences. To understand the relationships among these care processes, we analyzed baseline interview data from veterans enrolled in a randomized controlled trial of a palliative care intervention. Participants were 400 inpatient veterans admitted with a physician-estimated risk of one-year mortality more than 25%; 260 (65%) had cancer as the primary diagnosis. Patients who believed that they had a life-limiting illness (89% of sample) reported that their provider had communicated this to them more frequently than those who did not share that belief (78% vs. 22%, P<0.001). Over half (53%) of the participants reported discussing their care preferences with their providers and 66% reported such discussions with their family; 35% had a living will. In multivariate analysis, greater functional impairment was associated with patients having discussed their care preferences with providers (P<0.05), whereas patient understanding of prognosis (P<0.05), better quality of life (P<0.01), and not being African American (P<0.05) were associated with patients having discussed their care preferences with family; higher education (P<0.001), and not being African American (P<0.01) were associated with having a living will. Patients with poor understanding of prognosis are less likely to discuss care preferences with family members, suggesting the importance of provider communication with patients regarding prognosis. Because functional decline may prompt physicians to discuss prognosis with patients, patients with relatively preserved function may particularly need such communication.

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