Volume 23, Number 2, Summer 2012

The Effect of Completing a Surrogacy Information and Decision-Making Tool upon Admission to an Intensive Care Unit on Length of Stay and Charges


Carol W. Hatler, Charlene Grove, Stephanie Strickland,  Starr Barron, and Bruce D. White


The Journal of Clinical Ethics 23, no. 2 (Summer 2012): 129-138.


Background and Purpose

Many critically ill patients in intensive care units (ICUs) are unable to communicate their wishes about goals of care, particularly about the use of life-sustaining treatments. Surrogates and clinicians struggle with medical decisions because of a lack of clarity regarding patients’ preferences, leading to prolonged hospitalizations and increased costs. This project focused on the development and implementation of a tool to facilitate a better communication process by (1) assuring the early identification of a surrogate if indicated on admission and (2) clarifying the decision-making standards that the surrogate was to use when participating in decision making. Before introducing the tool into the admissions routine, the staff were educated about its use and value to the decision-making process.


Project and Methods

The study was to determine if early use of a simple method of identifying a patient’s surrogate and treatment preferences might impact length of stay (LOS) and total hospital charges. A pre- and post-intervention study design was used. Nurses completed the surrogacy information tool for all patients upon admission to the neuroscience ICU. Subjects (total N=203) were critically ill patients who had been on a mechanical ventilator for 96 hours or longer, or in the ICU for seven days or longer. The project included staff education on biomedical ethics, critical communication skills, early identification of families and staff in crisis, and use of a simple tool to document patients’ surrogates and previously expressed care wishes. Data on hospital LOS and hospital charges were collected through a retrospective review of medical records for similar four-month time frames pre- and post-implementation of the assessment tool.



Significant differences were found between pre- and post-groups in terms of hospital LOS (F=6.39, p=.01) and total hospital charges (F=7.03, p=.009).



Project findings indicate that the use of a simple admission assessment tool, supported by staff education about its completion, use, and available resources, can decrease LOS and lower total hospital charges. The reasons for the difference between the pre- and post-intervention groups remain unclear. Further research is needed to evaluate if the quality of communications between patients, their legally authorized representatives, and clinicians—as suggested in the literature—may have played a role in decreasing LOS and total hospital charges.


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