Nobody--especially family members--wants to hear bad news from the doctor. Having an optimistic point of view is admirable, but according to a recent study reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine, it’s not altogether practical either. When family members get dealt with bad news regarding a critically ill patient, they tend to paint a more positive picture for themselves. This, unfortunately, affects important end-of-life decisions.

This means family members might be more prone to making decisions that the patients themselves might not want. According to Dr. Douglas B. White, senior researcher of the study, for example, there is evidence that shows patients might not want their families to put them on a cardiopulmonary resuscitation machine to keep them breathing, knowing that it will only lengthen their life but not save it.

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Researchers asked 80 family members of critically ill patients in the intensive care unit to interpret a set of prognostic statements that had nothing to do with their own personal situation. The study revealed that the participants were able to interpret a good prognosis correctly, but when it came to negative results, family members tended to look at the brighter side of things.

If they were told that a patient had a 50-50 chance of surviving, four out of 10 participants were more likely to see it as a 50 to 70 chance of a recovery. And when they were told that a patient only had a five-percent chance of surviving, two-thirds still believed in a happy ending.

Based on interviews with 15 participants, researchers found out that one of the reasons for the overly optimistic point of view was that family members didn’t think that doctors had the last word on the matter. They also believe that if anyone can beat the odds, it's their family member.

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Staying positive is important, but it’s also important to stay in touch with reality and to consider the patient's own preferences. To prevent any miscommunication, researchers think that doctors should give the family members time to absorb the prognosis before talking to them again. At the same time, White said, "We have to acknowledge that there are limits to how precise and certain physicians can be in predicting the future."


Need help supporting a critically ill loved one? Check out this article for tips:


(Screencap from My Sister's Keeper courtesy of New Line Cinema)

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