Prior capacity of patients lacking decision making ability early in hospitalization

Implications for advance directive administration


Objective: To investigate the appropriateness of hospitalization as the time to elicit patients’ medical care preferences, the authors evaluated the capability of seriously ill patients to participate in decision making early in hospitalization and their decision making capacity two weeks before hospital entry.

Design: Cross-sectional study with retrospective evaluation of preadmission decision making capacity.

Setting: Five acute care teaching hospitals.

Patients: Four thousand three hundred one acutely ill hospitalized adults meeting predetermined severity of illness criteria in nine specific disease categories.

Measurements: Surrogate decision makers’ estimates of the prior mental capacities of patients unable to be interviewed early in hospitalization about care preferences due to intubation, coma, or cognitive impairment. Comparison of the demographics, degrees of sickness at admission, and outcomes of interviewable vs noninterviewable patients.

Main results: Forty percent of the patients were not interviewable concerning preferences. Of these, 83% could have participated in treatment decisions two weeks prior to hospitalization. The patients who were not interviewable were more acutely ill, had less chronic disease, and were more likely to die during hospitalization than the interviewable patients.

Conclusions: Many acutely ill patients likely to die in the hospital lost their ability to make medical care decisions around the time of hospital admission. Preferences for care and advance directives should be discussed in the outpatient setting or very early in hospital admission.

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Corresponding author

Correspondence to Dr. Neil S. Wenger MD, MPH.

Additional information

Funding for SUPPORT is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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Wenger, N.S., Oye, R.K., Bellamy, P.E. et al. Prior capacity of patients lacking decision making ability early in hospitalization. J Gen Intern Med 9, 539–543 (1994).

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Key words

  • advance directives
  • mental competence
  • medical ethics
  • terminal care
  • decision making
  • patients
  • hospitalization