This week's New England Journal of Medicine published a contribution to much-needed research into the way decisions are made about life-supporting treatments. A Canadian group concluded
(abstract only; full text requires subscription) on the basis of their study of 851 critically ill patients in 15 ICUs: "Rather than age or the severity of the illness and organ dysfunction, the strongest determinants of the withdrawal of ventilation in critically ill patients were the physician's perception that the patient preferred not to use life support, the physician's predictions of a low likelihood of survival in the intensive care unit and a high likelihood of poor cognitive function, and the use of inotropes or vasopressors." One problem with this approach, as Larry Schneiderman points out in an article
on South Africa's Health24.com web site: "Doctors believe they know what patients want in terms of life support, and that family members can fill in blanks. But Schneiderman says his own research suggests that what physicians think critically ill people want is in fact nearer to what they would choose for themselves. Family members, too, aren't especially reliable translators of their loved one's wishes. . . . We're always relying on surrogate decision makers or physicians, Schneiderman says. But there's plenty of evidence that it doesn't correlate too well with what patients truly desire."