Critical care physicians' approaches to negotiating with surrogate decision makers: A qualitative study

David R. Brush, Crystal E. Brown, G. Caleb Alexander

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Objective: To describe how critical care physicians manage conflicts with surrogates about withdrawing or withholding patients' life support. Design: Qualitative analysis of key informant interviews with critical care physicians during 2010. We transcribed interviews verbatim and used grounded theory to code and revise a taxonomy of themes and to identify illustrative quotes. Setting: Three academic medical centers, one academic-affiliated medical center, and four private practice groups or private hospitals in a large Midwestern city Subjects: Fourteen critical care physicians. Interventions: None. Measurements and Main Results: Physicians reported tailoring their approach to address specific reasons for disagreement with surrogates. Five common approaches were identified: 1) building trust; 2) educating and informing; 3) providing surrogates more time; 4) adjusting surrogate and physician roles; and 5) highlighting specific values. When mistrust was an issue, physicians endeavored to build a more trusting relationship with the surrogate before readdressing decision making. Physicians also reported correcting misunderstandings by providing targeted education, and some reported highlighting specific patient, surrogate, or physician values that they hoped would guide surrogates to agree with them. When surrogates struggled with decisionmaking roles, physicians attempted to reinforce the concept of substituted judgment. Physicians noted that some surrogates needed time to "come to terms" with the patent's illness before agreeing with physicians. Many physicians had witnessed colleagues negotiate in ways they found objectionable such as providing misleading information, injecting their own values into the negotiation or behaving unprofessionally toward surrogates. Although some physicians viewed their efforts to encourage surrogates' agreement as persuasive, others strongly denied persuading surrogates and described their actions as "guiding" or "negotiating." Conclusions: Physicians reported using a tailored approach to resolve decisional conflicts about life support and attempted to change surrogates' decisions in accordance with what the physician thought was in the patients' best interests. Although physicians acknowledged their efforts to change surrogates' decisions, many physicians did not perceive these efforts as persuasive.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1080-1087
Number of pages8
JournalCritical care medicine
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • communication barriers
  • conflict (psychology)
  • intensive care
  • medical ethics
  • physician-patient relations
  • withholding treatment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Critical Care and Intensive Care Medicine


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