We undertook the current investigation to explore how the pressures of serving as a surrogate decision-maker (SDM) for an acutely ill family member influence attitudes regarding clinical investigation.
We conducted a prospective study involving SDMs for critically ill patients cared for in the ICUs of two urban hospitals. Measurements included participation in focus groups designed to explore perceptions of ICU care and clinical research. Audiotapes were transcribed and analyzed to identify common patterns and themes using grounded theory. Demographic and clinical data were summarized using standard statistical methods.
Seventy-four SDMs (corresponding to 24% of eligible patients) participated. Most SDMs were women and described long-term relationships with the patients represented. SDMs described their role as “overwhelming,” their emotions were accentuated by the fatigue of the ICU experience, and they relied on family members, social contacts, and religion as sources of support. Altruism was reported as a common motivation for potential study participation, a sentiment often strengthened by the critical illness episode. Although research was viewed as optional, some SDMs perceived invitation for research participation as tacit acknowledgment of therapeutic failure. SDMs expressed a preference for observational studies (perceived as low risk) over interventional designs (perceived as higher risk). Trust in the ICU team and the research enterprise seemed tightly linked.
Despite significant emotional duress, SDMs expressed interest in investigation and described multiple factors motivating participation. Consent processes that minimize the effects of anxiety may be one strategy to enhance recruitment.