• proxy;
  • decision-making;
  • ethics

OBJECTIVES: To explore the degree to which physicians report reliance on patient preferences when making medical decisions for hospitalized patients lacking decisional capacity.

DESIGN: Cross-sectional survey.

SETTING: One academic and two community hospitals in a single metropolitan area.

PARTICIPANTS: Two hundred eighty-one physicians who recently cared for hospitalized adults.

MEASUREMENTS: A self-administered survey addressing physicians' beliefs about ethical principles guiding surrogate decision-making and physicians' recent decision-making experiences.

RESULTS: Overall, 72.6% of physicians identified a standard related to patient preferences as the most important ethical standard for surrogate decision-making (61.2% identified advanced directives and 11.4% substituted judgment). Of the 73.3% of physicians who reported recently making a surrogate decision, 81.8% reported that patient preferences were highly important in decision-making, although only 29.4% reported that patient preference was the most important factor in the decision. Physicians were significantly more likely to base decisions on patient preferences when the patient was in the intensive care unit (odds ratio (OR)=2.92, 95% confidence interval (CI)=1.15–7.45) and less likely when the patient was older (OR=0.76 for each decade of age, 95% CI=0.58–0.99). The presence of a living will, prior discussions with the patient, and the physicians' beliefs about ethical guidelines did not significantly predict the physicians' reliance on patient preferences.

CONCLUSION: Although a majority of physicians identified patient preferences as the most important general ethical guideline for surrogate decision-making, they relied on a variety of factors when making treatment decisions for a patient lacking decisional capacity.