BACKGROUND Surrogates and clinicians often make treatment decisions for decisionally incapacitated patients with limited knowledge of their preferences. This study examined patients' life-sustaining treatment preferences to facilitate advance care planning discussions and surrogate decision making. METHODS We interviewed 342 participants from 7 groups: younger and older well adults; persons with chronic illness, terminal cancer, and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS); stroke survivors; and nursing home residents. Preferences for antibiotics, short- and long-term mechanical ventilation, hemodialysis, tube feeding, and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) were elicited for each participant's current health state and three hypothetical health states representing severe dementia, coma, and severe stroke. RESULTS Participants chose to forego more invasive or long-term treatments at a higher rate than less invasive, short-term treatments in all health states. Participants were much more willing to forego treatments in coma than in their current health state, with stroke and dementia somewhere in between. Participants who were older, female, had worse functional status, had more depressive symptoms, or lived in a nursing home were more inclined to forego treatment in their current health state. In contrast, treatment preferences in hypothetical health states showed either no associations or much weaker associations with these factors. Participants who were willing to accept more invasive treatments were highly likely to accept less invasive treatments and participants who preferred to forego a less invasive treatment were highly likely to forego more invasive treatments. Participants who preferred to receive a treatment in a health state with severe impairments were highly likely to want the same treatment in a less impaired health state. Similarly, participants who preferred to forego a treatment in a less impaired health state were highly likely to forego the same treatment in a more impaired state. CONCLUSIONS In advance care planning discussions, clinicians might explore with patients their preferences about short- and long-term treatments with variability in their invasiveness (including CPR) in both their current health state and hypothetical situations representing different levels of functional impairment. When surrogates have no knowledge about the wishes of formerly competent patients, clinicians may help them with medical decisions by discussing what other people commonly want in similar circumstances.
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