Advancing Spiritual Care Through Research

Health care professionals’ responses to religious or spiritual statements by surrogate decision makers during goals-of-care discussions

Importance: Although many patients and their families view religion or spirituality as an important consideration near the end of life, little is known about the extent to which religious or spiritual considerations arise during goals-of-care conversations in the intensive care unit. Objectives: To determine how frequently surrogate decision makers and health care professionals discuss religious or spiritual considerations during family meetings in the intensive care unit and to characterize how health care professionals respond to such statements by surrogates. Design, Setting, and Participants: A multicenter prospective cohort study was conducted between October 8, 2009, and October 24, 2012, regarding 249 goals-of-care conversations between 651 surrogate decision makers and 441 health care professionals in 13 intensive care units across the United States. Audio-recorded conversations between surrogate decision makers and health care professionals were analyzed, transcribed, and qualitatively coded. Data analysis took place from March 10, 2012, through May 24, 2014. Exposures: Goals-of-care conferences. Main Outcomes and Measures: Constant comparative methods to develop a framework for coding religious and spiritual statements were applied to the transcripts. Participants completed demographic questionnaires that included religious affiliation and religiosity. Results: Of 457 surrogate decision makers, 355 (77.6%) endorsed religion or spirituality as fairly or very important in their life. Discussion of religious or spiritual considerations occurred in 40 of 249 conferences (16.1%). Surrogates were the first to raise religious or spiritual considerations in most cases (26 of 40). Surrogates’ statements (n=59) fell into the following 5 main categories: references to their religious or spiritual beliefs, including miracles (n=34); religious practices (n=19); religious community (n=8); the notion that the physician is God’s instrument to promote healing (n=4); and the interpretation that the end of life is a new beginning for their loved one (n=4). Some statements fell into more than 1 category. In response to surrogates’ religious or spiritual statements, health care professionals redirected the conversation to medical considerations (n=15), offered to involve hospital spiritual care providers or the patient’s own religious or spiritual community (n=14), expressed empathy (n=13), acknowledged surrogates’ statements (n=11), or explained their own religious or spiritual beliefs (n=3). In only 8 conferences did health care professionals attempt to further understand surrogates’ beliefs, for example, by asking questions about the patient’s religion. Conclusions and Relevance: Among a cohort of surrogate decision makers with a relatively high degree of religiosity, discussion of religious or spiritual considerations occurred in fewer than 20% of goals-of-care conferences in intensive care units, and health care professionals rarely explored the patient’s or family’s religious or spiritual ideas.