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Effect of default options in advance directives on hospital-free days and care choices among seriously ill patients: A randomized clinical trial

JAMA Network Open March 30, 2020

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PAIR Center Research Team


Dylan Small

Headshot of Elizabeth Cooney Zingman

Elizabeth Cooney-Zingman


Kevin G. Volpp

Headshot of Scott Halpern

Scott Halpern


IMPORTANCE: There is limited evidence regarding how patients make choices in advance directives (ADs) or whether these choices influence subsequent care.

OBJECTIVE: To examine whether default options in ADs influence care choices and clinical outcomes.

DESIGN, SETTING, and PARTICIPANTS: This randomized clinical trial included 515 patients who met criteria for having serious illness and agreed to participate. Patients were enrolled at 20 outpatient clinics affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania Health System and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center from February 2014 to April 2016 and had a median follow-up of 18 months. Data analysis was conducted from November 2018 to April 2019.

INTERVENTIONS: Patients were randomly assigned to complete 1 of the 3 following ADs: (1) a comfort-promoting plan of care and nonreceipt of potentially life-sustaining therapies were selected by default (comfort AD), (2) a life-extending plan of care and receipt of potentially life-sustaining therapies were selected by default (life-extending AD), or (3) no choices were preselected (standard AD).

MAIN OUTCOMES AND MEASURES: This trial was powered to rule out a reduction in hospital-free days in the intervention groups. Secondary outcomes included choices in ADs for an overall comfort-oriented approach to care, choices to forgo 4 forms of life support, patients’ quality of life, decision conflict, place of death, admissions to hospitals and intensive care units, and costs of inpatient care.

RESULTS: Among 515 patients randomized, 10 withdrew consent and 13 were later found to be ineligible, leaving 492 (95.5%) in the modified intention-to-treat (mITT) sample (median [interquartile range] age, 63 [56-70] years; 279 [56.7%] men; 122 [24.8%] black; 363 [73.8%] with cancer). Of these, 264 (53.7%) returned legally valid ADs and were debriefed about their assigned intervention. Among these, patients completing comfort ADs were more likely to choose comfort care (54 of 85 [63.5%]) than those returning standard ADs (45 of 91 [49.5%]) or life-extending ADs (33 of 88 [37.5%]) (P = .001). Among 492 patients in the mITT sample, 57 of 168 patients [33.9%] who completed the comfort AD, 47 of 165 patients [28.5%] who completed the standard AD, and 35 of 159 patients [22.0%] who completed the life-extending AD chose comfort care (P = .02), with patients not returning ADs coded as not selecting comfort care. In mITT analyses, median (interquartile range) hospital-free days among 168 patients assigned to comfort ADs and 159 patients assigned to life-extending default ADs were each noninferior to those among 165 patients assigned to standard ADs (standard AD: 486 [306-717] days; comfort AD: 554 [296-833] days; rate ratio, 1.05; 95% CI, 0.90-1.23; P < .001; life-extending AD: 550 [325-783] days; rate ratio, 1.03; 95% CI, 0.88-1.20; P < .001). There were no differences among groups in other secondary outcomes.

CONCLUSIONS AND RELEVANCE: In this randomized clinical trial, default options in ADs altered the choices seriously ill patients made regarding their future care without changing clinical outcomes.


National Heart,Lung,and Blood Institute (NHLBI)