How do clinicians prepare family members for the role of surrogate decision-maker?

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Although surrogate decision-making (SDM) is prevalent in intensive care units (ICUs) and concerns with decision quality are well documented, little is known about how clinicians help family members understand the surrogate role. We investigated whether and how clinicians provide normative guidance to families regarding how to function as a surrogate.

Subjects and methods

We audiorecorded and transcribed 73 ICU family conferences in which clinicians anticipated discussing goals of care for incapacitated patients at high risk of death. We developed and applied a coding framework to identify normative statements by clinicians regarding what considerations should guide surrogates’ decisions, including whether clinicians explained one or more of Buchanan and Brock’s three standard principles of SDM to family members.


Clinicians made at least one statement about how to perform the surrogate role in 24 (34%) conferences (mean of 0.83 statements per conference (1.77; range 0–9)). We observed three general types of normative guidance provided to surrogates, with some conferences containing more than one type of guidance: counselling about one or more standard principles of SDM (24% of conferences); counselling surrogates to make decisions centred on the patient as a person, without specifying how to accomplish that (14% of conferences); and counselling surrogates to make decisions based on the family’s values (8% of conferences).


Clinicians did not provide normative guidance about the surrogate role in two-thirds of family conferences for incapacitated patients at high risk for death. When they did, clinicians’ guidance was often incomplete and sometimes conflicted with standard principles of SDM. Future work is needed to understand whether providing explicit guidance on how to perform the surrogate role improves decision-making or mitigates surrogates’ psychological distress.

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