The human capacity to deny reality is one of our defining characteristics. Evolutionarily, it has often served us well, inspiring us to press onward against long odds. Without denial, the American settlers might have aborted their westward trek somewhere around Pittsburgh; Steve Jobs might thrown up his hands after the demise of the Lisa; and Martin Luther King’s famous speech might have been entitled, “I Have a Strategic Plan and a Draft Budget.”
Yet when danger or failure is just around the corner, denial can be dysfunctional (see Karl Rove on Fox News), even suicidal (see climate change and Superstorm Sandy).
Healthcare is no exception. Emerging evidence suggests that patients and their surrogates frequently engage in massive denial when it comes to prognosis near the end of life. While understandable – denial is often the way that people remove the “less” from “hopeless” – it can lead to terrible decisions, with bad consequences for both the individual patient and society.
First, there is evidence that individuals charged with making decisions for their loved ones (“surrogate decision-makers”) simply don’t believe that physicians can prognosticate accurately. In a 2009 study, UCSF’s Lucas Zier found that nearly two-thirds of surrogates gave little credence to their physicians’ predictions of futility. Driven by this skepticism, one-in-three would elect continued life-sustaining treatments even after the doctor offered their loved one a less than 1% chance of survival.
In a more recent study by Zier and colleagues, 80 surrogates of critically ill patients were given hypothetical prognostic statements regarding their loved ones. The statements ranged from “he will definitely survive” to “he will definitely not survive,” with 14 statements in between (including some that offered percentages, such as “he has a [10%, or a 50%, or a 90%] chance of survival”). After hearing these statements, surrogates were asked to interpret them and offer their own survival estimates.
When the prognosis was optimistic (“definitely survive” or “90%” survival odds), surrogates’ estimates were in sync with those of the physicians. But when the prognosis was pessimistic (“definitely not survive” or “he has a 5% chance of surviving”), surrogates’ interpretations took a sharp turn toward optimism. For example, surrogates believed that when the doctor offered a 5% survival chance, the patient’s true chance of living was at least three times that; some thought it was as high as 40%. Remarkably, when asked later to explain this discordance, many surrogates struggled. Said one, “I’m not coming up with good words to explain this [trend] because I was not aware I was doing this.” The authors identified two main themes to explain their findings: surrogates’ need to be optimistic in the face of serious illness (either as a coping mechanism for themselves or to buck up their loved one), and surrogates’ beliefs that their loved one possessed attributes unknown to the physician, attributes that would result in better-than-predicted survival (the “he’s a fighter” argument).