Homing in on the Social: System-Level Influences on Overly Aggressive Treatments at the End of Life

Elizabeth Dzeng, Daniel Dohan, J. Randall Curtis, Thomas J. Smith, Alessandra Colaianni, Christine S. Ritchie

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Context: The American Medical System is programmed to a default setting of aggressive care for the terminally ill. Institutional norms of decision making have been shown to promote high-intensity care, regardless of consistency with patient preferences. There are myriad factors at a system, clinician, surrogate, and patient level that drive the culture of overly aggressive treatments in American hospitals. Objective: The objective of this study was to understand physician perspective of the ways systems-level factors influence patient, physician, and surrogate perceptions and consequent behavior. Methods: Semi-structured in-depth qualitative interviews with 42 internal medicine physicians across three American academic medical centers were conducted. This qualitative study was exploratory in nature, intended to enhance conceptual understanding of underlying phenomena that drive physician attitudes and behavior. Results: The interviews revealed many factors that contributed to overly aggressive treatments at the end of life. Systemic factors, which describe underlying cultures (including institutional, professional, or community-based cultures), typical practices of care, or systemic defaults that drive patterns of care, manifested its influence both directly and through its impact on patient, surrogate, and physician behaviors and attitudes. Conclusion: Institutional cultures, social norms, and systemic defaults influence both normative beliefs regarding standards of care and treatments plans that may not benefit seriously ill patients.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)282-289.e1
JournalJournal of Pain and Symptom Management
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2018


  • Overly aggressive treatments
  • end-of-life care
  • medical culture
  • qualitative research
  • social science

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Nursing
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine


Dive into the research topics of 'Homing in on the Social: System-Level Influences on Overly Aggressive Treatments at the End of Life'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this