Objective: Many intensive care unit (ICU) physicians have withdrawn life-support from a patient who lacked decision-making capacity and a surrogate decision-maker, yet little is known about the decision-making practices for these patients. We sought to determine how often such patients are admitted to the ICU of a metropolitan hospital and how end-of-life decisions are made for them.
Design: Prospective, observational cohort study.
Patients and Setting: Consecutive adult patients admitted to the medical ICU of a metropolitan West Coast hospital during a 7-month period in 2003 to 2004.
Measurements: Attending physicians completed a questionnaire about the decision-making process for each patient for whom they considered limiting life-support who lacked decisional capacity and a legally recognized surrogate decision-maker.
Main Results: Of the 303 patients admitted during the study period, 49 (16%; 95% confidence interval [CI], 12–21%) lacked decision-making capacity and a surrogate during the entire ICU stay. Compared with all other ICU patients, these patients were more likely to be male (88% vs. 69%; p = .002), white (42% vs. 23%; p = .028), and ≥65 yrs old (29% vs. 13%; p = .007). Physicians considered withholding or withdrawing treatment from 37% (18) of the 49 patients who lacked both decision-making capacity and a surrogate decision-maker. For 56% (10) of these 18 patients, the opinion of another attending physician was obtained; for 33% (6 of 18), the ICU team made the decision independently, and for 11% (2 of 18), the input of the courts or the hospital ethics committee was obtained. Overall, 27% of deaths (13 of 49) during the study period were in incapacitated patients who lacked a surrogate (95% CI, 15–41%).
Conclusions: Sixteen percent of patients admitted to the medical ICU of this hospital lacked both decision-making capacity and a surrogate decision-maker. Decisions to limit life support were generally made by physicians without judicial or institutional review. Further research and debate are needed to develop optimal decision-making strategies for these difficult cases.