Next of Kin Perceptions of Physician Responsiveness to Symptoms of Hospitalized Patients Near Death
Many different medical providers visit critically ill patients during a hospitalization, and patients and family members may not feel any physician is truly in charge of care. This study explores whether perceiving that a physician was clearly in charge is associated with reports by surviving next of kin about the responsiveness of physicians to symptoms in hospitalized patients near the end of life. We conducted telephone interviews with surviving next of kin of adult patients (n = 1107) who died in one of five New York City teaching hospitals between April 1998 and June 1999 after a minimum 3-day inpatient stay. Next-of-kin ratings of whether physicians did "all they could" all or most of the time in response to patient pain, dyspnea, and affective distress (confusion, depression or emotional distress) were compared by whether the next of kin reported one or more physicians "clearly in charge" of care, adjusting for patient and next-of-kin characteristics. More than 80% of patients were reported to have experienced often serious pain, dyspnea, or affective distress. Physicians were rated as responsive to pain by 79.1% of respondents, to dyspnea by 84.9%, and to affective distress by 66.6%. Ratings of physician responsiveness to pain (p = 0.001) and affective distress (p = 0.001) were significantly lower among patients for whom no physician was seen as clearly in charge of care. This finding is consistent with the view that ensuring that a physician coordinates the care of seriously ill, hospitalized patients may improve symptom management. Further research is warranted to establish causality and identify optimal models of care.