The Language of End-of-Life Decision Making: A Simulation Study

Annie Lu, Deepika Mohan, Stewart C. Alexander, Craig Mescher, Amber E. Barnato

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


Background: Framing is known to influence decision making. Objective: The study objective was to describe language used by physicians when discussing treatment options with a critically and terminally ill elder. Methods: High-fidelity simulation was used, involving an elder with end-stage cancer and life-threatening hypoxia, followed by a debriefing interview. Subjects were hospitalist, emergency medicine, and critical care physicians from three academic medical centers. Measures were observation of encounters in real time followed by content analysis of simulation and debriefing interview transcripts. During the simulation we identified the first mention ("broaching") of principal treatment options - intubation and mechanical ventilation (life-sustaining treatment [LST]) and palliation in anticipation of death (palliation) - and used constant comparative methods to identify language used. We identified physician opinions about the use of LST in this clinical context during the debriefing interviews, and compared language used with opinions. Results: Among 114 physician subjects, 106 discussed LST, 86 discussed palliation, and 84 discussed both. We identified five frames: will (decided), must (necessary), should (convention), could (option), and ask (elicitation of preferences). Physicians broached LST differently than palliation (p<0.01), most commonly framing LST as necessary (53%), while framing palliation as optional (49%). Among physicians who framed LST as imperative (will or must), 16 (30%) felt intubation would be inappropriate in this clinical situation. Conclusions: In this high-fidelity simulation experiment involving a critically and terminally ill elder, the majority of physicians framed the available options in ways implying LST was the expected or preferred choice. Framing of treatment options could influence ultimate treatment decisions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)740-746
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of palliative medicine
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 1 2015

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Copyright 2015, Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. 2015.


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