Prognosis and Decision Making in Severe Stroke

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Context: An increasing number of deaths following severe stroke are due to terminal extubations. Variation in withdrawal-of-care practices suggests the possibility of unnecessary prolongation of suffering or of unwanted deaths.

Objectives: To review the available evidence on prognosis in mechanically ventilated stroke patients and to provide an overall framework to optimize decision making for clinicians, patients, and families.

Data Sources: Search of MEDLINE from 1980 through March 2005 for English-language articles addressing prognosis in mechanically ventilated stroke patients. From 689 articles identified, we selected 17 for further review. We also identified factors that influence, and decision-making biases that may result, in overuse or underuse of life-sustaining therapies, with a particular emphasis on mechanical ventilation.

Evidence Synthesis: Overall mortality among mechanically ventilated stroke patients is high, with a 30-day death rate approximating 58% (range in literature, 46%-75%). Although data are limited, among survivors as many as one third may have no or only slight disability, yet many others have severe disability. One can further refine prognosis according to knowledge of stroke syndromes, early patient characteristics, use of clinical prediction rules, and the need for continuing interventions. Factors influencing preferences for life-sustaining treatments include the severity and pattern of future clinical deficits, the probability of these deficits, and the burdens of treatments. Decision-making biases that may affect withdrawal-of-treatment decisions include erroneous prognostic estimates, inappropriate methods of communicating evidence, misunderstanding patient values and expectations, and failing to appreciate the extent to which patients can physically and psychologically adapt.

Conclusion: Although prognosis among mechanically ventilated stroke patients is generally poor, a minority do survive without severe disability. Prognosis can be assessed according to clinical presentation and patient characteristics. There is an urgent need to better understand the marked variation in the care of these patients and to reliably measure and improve the patient-centeredness of such decisions.

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JAMA, v. 294, issue 6, p. 725-733