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Med Decis Making. 2014 Feb;34(2):258-69. doi: 10.1177/0272989X12471729. Epub 2013 Jan 29.

Surrogate decision making: do we have to trade off accuracy and procedural satisfaction?

Author information

Center for Cognitive and Decision Sciences, University of Basel, Switzerland (RF).
Center for Adaptive Rationality, Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin, Germany (RF, RH, SMH)



Making surrogate decisions on behalf of incapacitated patients can raise difficult questions for relatives, physicians, and society. Previous research has focused on the accuracy of surrogate decisions (i.e., the proportion of correctly inferred preferences). Less attention has been paid to the procedural satisfaction that patients' surrogates and patients attribute to specific approaches to making surrogate decisions. The objective was to investigate hypothetical patients' and surrogates' procedural satisfaction with specific approaches to making surrogate decisions and whether implementing these preferences would lead to tradeoffs between procedural satisfaction and accuracy.


Study 1 investigated procedural satisfaction by assigning participants (618 in a mixed-age but relatively young online sample and 50 in an older offline sample) to the roles of hypothetical surrogates or patients. Study 2 (involving 64 real multigenerational families with a total of 253 participants) investigated accuracy using 24 medical scenarios.


Hypothetical patients and surrogates had closely aligned preferences: Procedural satisfaction was highest with a patient-designated surrogate, followed by shared surrogate decision-making approaches and legally assigned surrogates. These approaches did not differ substantially in accuracy. Limitations are that participants' preferences regarding existing and novel approaches to making surrogate decisions can only be elicited under hypothetical conditions.


Next to decision making by patient-designated surrogates, shared surrogate decision making is the preferred approach among patients and surrogates alike. This approach appears to impose no tradeoff between procedural satisfaction and accuracy. Therefore, shared decision making should be further studied in representative samples of the general population, and if people's preferences prove to be robust, they deserve to be weighted more strongly in legal frameworks in addition to patient-designated surrogates.


accuracy; end-of-life decisions; preferences; proxy; shared decision making; surrogate

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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