A Survey of Physicians’ Attitudes toward Decision-Making Authority for Initiating and Withdrawing VA-ECMO: Results and Ethical Implications for Shared Decision Making

 

Ellen C. Meltzer, Natalia S. Ivascu, Meredith Stark, Alexander V. Orfanos, Cathleen A. Acres, Paul J. Christos,

Thomas Mangione, and Joseph J. Fins

 

      Objective:  Although patients exercise greater autonomy than in the past, and shared decision making is promoted as the preferred model for doctor-patient engagement, tensions still exist in clinical practice about the primary locus of decision-making authority for complex, scarce, and resource-intensive medical therapies: patients and their surrogates, or physicians. We assessed physicians’ attitudes toward decisional authority for adult venoarterial extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (VA-ECMO), hypothesizing they would favor a medical locus.

      Design, Setting, Participants: A survey of resident/fellow physicians and internal medicine attendings at an academic medical center, May to August 2013.

      Measurements: We used a 24-item, internet-based survey assessing physician-respondents’ demographic characteristics, knowledge, and  attitudes regarding decisional authority for adult VA-ECMO. Qualitative narratives were also collected.

      Main Results: A total of 179 physicians completed the survey (15 percent response rate); 48 percent attendings and 52 percent residents/fellows. Only 32 percent of the respondents indicated that a surrogate’s consent should be required to discontinue VA-ECMO; 56 percent felt that physicians should have the right to discontinue VA-ECMO over a surrogate’s objection. Those who self-reported as “knowledgeable” about VA-ECMO, compared to those who did not, more frequently replied that there should not be presumed consent for VA-ECMO (47.6 percent versus 33.3 percent, p = 0.007), that physicians should have the right to discontinue VA-ECMO over a surrogate’s objection (76.2 percent versus 50 percent, p = 0.02) and that, given its cost, the use of VA-ECMO should be restricted (81.0 percent versus 54.4 percent, p = 0.005).

      Conclusions: Surveyed physicians, especially those who self-reported as knowledgeable about VA-ECMO and/or were specialists in pulmonary/critical care, favored a medical locus of decisional authority for VA-ECMO. VA-ECMO is complex, and the data may (1) reflect physicians’ hesitance to cede authority to presumably less knowledgeable patients and surrogates, (2) stem from a stewardship of resources perspective, and/or (3) point to practical efforts to avoid futility and utility disputes. Whether these results indicate a more widespread reversion to paternalism or a more circumscribed usurping of decisional authority occasioned by VA-ECMO necessitates further study.

 

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