Importance: Discordance about prognosis between a patient's health care decision-making surrogate and the treating intensivist is common in the intensive care unit (ICU). Empowering families, friends, and caregivers of patients who are critically ill to make informed decisions about care is important, but it is unclear how best to communicate prognostic information to surrogates when a patient is expected to die. Objective: To determine whether family members, who are often health care decision-making surrogates, interpret intensivists as being more optimistic when questions about prognosis in the ICU are answered indirectly. Design, Setting, and Participants: This web-based randomized trial was conducted between September 27, 2019, and October 17, 2019, among a national sample of adult children, spouses, partners, or siblings of people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease who were receiving long-term oxygen therapy. Participants were shown video vignettes depicting an intensivist answering a standardized question about the prognosis of a patient at high risk of death on day 3 of ICU admission. Participants were excluded if they had worked as a physician, nurse, or advanced health care practitioner. Data were analyzed from October 18, 2019, to November 12, 2019. Interventions: Participants were randomized to view 1 of 4 intensivist communication styles in response to the question "What do you think is most likely to happen?": (1) a direct response (control), (2) an indirect response comparing the patient's condition with that of other patients, (3) an indirect response describing the patient's deteriorating physiological condition, or (4) redirection to a discussion of the patient's values and goals. Main Outcomes and Measures: Participant responses to 2 questions: (1) "If you had to guess, what do you think the doctor thinks is the chance that your loved one will survive this hospitalization?" and (2) "What do you think are the chances that your loved one will survive this hospitalization?" answered using a 0% to 100% probability scale. Results: Among 302 participants (median [interquartile range] age, 49 [38-59] years; 204 [68%] women) included in the trial, 165 (55%) were adult children of the individual with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; 77 participants were randomized to view a direct response, 77 participants were randomized to view an indirect response referencing other patients, 68 participants were randomized to view an indirect response referencing physiological condition, and 80 participants were randomized to view a redirection response. Compared with participants who viewed a direct response, participants who viewed an indirect response referencing other patients (β = 10 [95% CI, 1-19]; P = .03), physiological condition (β = 10 [95% CI, 0-19]; P = .04), or redirection to a discussion of the patient's values and goals (β = 19 [95% CI, 10-28]; P < .001) perceived the intensivist to have a significantly more optimistic prognostic estimate. Conclusions and Relevance: These findings suggest that family members interpret indirect or redirection responses to questions about prognosis in the ICU setting as more optimistic than direct responses. Trial Registration: ClinicalTrials.gov Identifier: NCT04239209.
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