Variability in physicians' decisions on caring for chronically ill elderly patients: an international study.
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OBJECTIVES: To determine what treatment decisions physicians will make when faced with an incompetent elderly patient with life-threatening gastrointestinal bleeding and to identify the factors that affect their decisions. DESIGN: Survey. SETTING: Family practice, medical and geriatrics rounds in academic medical centres and community hospitals in seven countries. PARTICIPANTS: Physicians who regularly cared for incompetent elderly patients. OUTCOME MEASURE: A self-administered questionnaire containing three case vignettes. Each provided the same details on an incompetent elderly patient; however, one gave no information about the wishes of the patient and his family (no directive), the second provided a do-not-resuscitate (DNR) request, and the third included a detailed therapeutic and resuscitative effort chart (DTREC) requesting maximum therapeutic care without admission to the intensive care unit (ICU). The four treatment options were supportive care only, limited therapeutic care, maximum therapeutic care without admission to the ICU and maximum care with admission to the ICU. MAIN RESULTS: Treatment decisions varied and were systematically related to age, level of training and country (p less than 0.001). The older physicians and those in family medicine were less likely than the others to choose aggressive treatment options. Brazilian and US physicians were the most aggressive; Australian physicians were the most conservative. The DNR request resulted in a significant decrease in the number of physicians choosing aggressive options (p less than 0.001). The DTREC resulted in a move toward more aggressive treatment, as outlined in the directive (p less than 0.001). Overall, however, about 40% of the physicians chose a level of care different from what had been requested. Furthermore, over 10% would have tried cardiopulmonary resuscitation despite the DNR request. CONCLUSION: Treatment of incompetent elderly patients with life-threatening illness varies widely within and between countries. Uniform standards should be developed on the basis of societal values and be communicated to physicians.