More Americans support lifesaving measures

Survey shows shift in attitudes on prolonging the life of terminal patients

By Mac McLean / The Bulletin / @agingbeat


Published Dec 6, 2013 at 12:01AM / Updated Dec 6, 2013 at 06:59AM

A recent survey found more and more Americans think doctors should do whatever it takes to keep patients who have terminal diseases alive regardless of whether they are showing no signs of improvement, are in considerable pain or are going to be completely dependent on someone else for their care.

Conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project this past spring, the survey found that almost a third of the population thinks doctors “should always do everything possible” to prolong their patients’ lives rather than let them die. That’s more than twice the percentage of Americans who held this opinion in 1990, said Cory Funk, a senior researcher with the project who conducted the survey as part of an ongoing effort to track how people were making their end-of-life decisions.

But while Funk said the survey’s results showed a shift in public opinion, people who want doctors to save patients’ lives regardless of the circumstances are still a minority, albeit a growing one

Funk did not know what led to this change.

“That’s something I can’t really say,” she said. “It’s hard to pinpoint public opinion to a single event or circumstance.”

Based on more than 4,000 random phone interviews conducted between March 21 and April 8, the project’s survey found 31 percent of Americans think doctors should keep patients who suffer from a terminal condition alive regardless of the circumstances. An even greater percentage of Americans would want doctors to go to these extreme lengths if they were the ones with the terminal disease.

According to the survey:

• 46 percent wanted their doctors to do everything possible to keep them alive if they had an incurable disease that made it hard to function or perform their day-to-day activities.

• 37 percent wanted this if they had a disease that made them dependent on someone else for care.

• 35 percent wanted this if they were suffering a great deal of pain.

Funk said the project’s staff has seen a significant increase in the share of the population that said yes to all three of these questions when compared with previous surveys it conducted in 2005 and 1990 (see “Survey results” on D2).

She said the biggest of these changes came when the survey respondents were asked a non-specific question about a general doctor and a general patient. According to the survey report, only 15 percent of Americans said doctors “should do everything possible to save the life of a patient in all circumstances” in 1990 and 22 percent of the population held this opinion in 2005.

“There’s been a doubling of that percentage since 1990,” Funk said, explaining that during the time the share of Americans who said there were “circumstances in which a patient should be allowed to die” fell by 7 percentage points between 1990 and this past spring, while the percentage of Americans who said they didn’t know or didn’t have an opinion fell by 9 percentage points.

Based on these numbers, Funk said it’s safe to conclude that more Americans have an opinion when it comes to end-of-life treatments today than when the survey was first conducted 23 years ago.

But she also said that it was impossible to tell whether individual people have changed their minds about the issue over the past two decades — rather than a general trend that was focused on the population as a whole — because the survey administrators randomly selected their respondents and did not interview the same group of people over a considerable amount of time.

They did, however, notice huge increases when people were broken down into certain demographic groups. The survey found that over the past 23 years, the share of people who think doctors should do everything possible to save the life of a patient increased:

• From 20 percent to 43 percent among people who were between 18 and 29.

• From 13 percent to 33 percent among people between 30 and 49.

• From 12 percent to 16 percent among people between 50 and 64.

• From 13 percent to 20 percent among people who were 65 or older.

Outside of these the youngest age groups, Funk said she saw major increases among people who held this opinion and had achieved a high school education or less, which increased from 17 percent in 1990 to 43 percent this past spring, and among people who had given their own end-of-life issues not very much thought or no thought at all, which increased from 20 percent to 43 percent.

— Reporter: 541-617-7816, mmclean@bendbulletin.com