Patients' knowledge of options at the end of life: Ignorance in the face of death

Maria J. Silveira, Albert DiPiero, Martha S. Gerrity, Chris Feudtner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

164 Scopus citations


Context: Effectiveness of legislation promoting advance directives and legalizing physician-assisted suicide depends on patients' understanding their legal options about end-of-life care. However, outpatients' understanding of their legal options at the end of life has not been studied. Objectives: To estimate the percentage of outpatients who are informed about 4 areas relevant to end-of-life care: refusal and withdrawal of lifesaving treatments, physician-assisted suicide, active euthanasia, and double effect; and to determine whether authoring advance directives, experiencing illness, acting as a proxy for health care decisions, and caring for an ill loved one are associated with better knowledge in end-of-life care. Design: Cross-sectional survey. Setting and Participants: One thousand consecutive English-speaking, adult patients attending 1 university-based internal medicine clinic and 3 community-based, university-affiliated, mixed internal medicine and family practice clinics in Oregon during May and June 1999. Main Outcome Measures: Percentage of correct responses in the 4 topic areas and total knowledge score, adjusted for demographic (eg, age, race, educational level, income level, marital status) and experiential (eg, health, proxy decision making, advance directives, and death of a loved one) factors. Results: Of the 1000 patients invited to participate, 728 (73%) consented and completed the questionnaire and were included in the analysis. A total of 69% of respondents answered correctly regarding refusal of treatment, 46% for withdrawal of treatment, 23% for assisted suicide, 32% for active euthanasia, and 41% for double effect. Sixty-two percent of respondents did not distinguish between assisted suicide and euthanasia. After adjustment for other covariates, better knowledge was significantly associated with white race (odds ratio [OR], 2.3; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.3-4.2), having at least a college degree (OR, 3.0; 95% CI, 1.4-6.7), and having been a proxy for health care decisions (OR, 1.8; 95% CI, 1.2-2.6). Personal experience with illness (OR, 1.0; 95% CI, 0.6-1.5), death or illness of a loved one (OR, 1.6; 95% CI, 1.0-2.7), and authoring an advance directive (OR, 1.3; 95% CI, 0.9-2.0) were not associated with better knowledge. Conclusions: A significant proportion of outpatients at university-affiliated clinics in Oregon appear to misunderstand options in end-of-life care. Our results suggest that greater public knowledge about end-of-life care is needed, and advance care planning must be preceded by education about options in end-of-life care.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2483-2488
Number of pages6
Issue number19
StatePublished - Nov 15 2000

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)


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