Importance: The value of advance care planning (ACP) has been the subject of recent debate because of mixed findings. This may be, in part, because trials presume that researchers and patient spokespersons share the same understanding of the role of a surrogate decision-maker. We explored how patient surrogates conceptualized and defined surrogate decision-making vs patient advocacy. Understanding how surrogates perceive their role in decision-making is important to avoid misinterpreting the effectiveness of ACP interventions. Objective: To understand how patient spokespersons distinguish surrogate decision-making from patient advocacy. Design, Setting, and Participants: This qualitative thematic analysis of a subsample of participants from a randomized clinical trial at a tertiary medical center was conducted from September 27, 2012, to June 30, 2021. Participants (n = 36) were the designated spokespersons of adult patients with severe illness who had made a surrogate decision on behalf of the patient since the last follow-up. Analysis was performed from March 21, 2021, to February 7, 2022. Main Outcomes and Measures: Semistructured interviews examined how patient spokespersons conceptualize differences between surrogate decision-making and advocacy. Results: The study included 36 patient spokespersons (32 women [88.9%]; mean [SD] age, 62.1 [11.8] years) and found substantial variability in how the spokespersons conceptualized what it means to make a surrogate decision for another. A total of 10 spokespersons (27.8%) did not distinguish surrogate decision-making from advocacy. There were 5 definitions for both surrogate decision-making and advocacy. The 3 most common definitions of surrogate decision-making were (1) acting as the final decision-maker (18 [50.0%]), (2) doing what is best for the patient (8 [22.2%]), and (3) making decisions on behalf of patients so that their wishes are respected (6 [16.7%]). The 3 most common definitions of advocacy were (1) doing what is best for the patient (8 [22.2%]), (2) respecting patients' wishes (6 [16.7%]), and (3) providing support to the patient (6 [16.7%]). The most common pairing of definitions by an individual spokesperson involved defining surrogate decision-making as being the final decision-maker, and defining advocacy as acting in the best interest of the patient (6 [16.7%]). Conclusions and Relevance: This qualitative study found that many spokespersons perceive their roles as surrogate decision-makers differently than clinicians and researchers likely do, often conflating surrogacy with advocacy. These findings may help explain why researchers have found that ACP does not consistently improve traditional outcomes. If spokespersons do not distinguish surrogate decision-making from advocacy, then what is being reported by spokespersons and measured by clinicians and researchers may not accurately reflect the true association of ACP with outcomes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)E2245608
JournalJAMA network open
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 8 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Medicine


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