UMass Chan Medical School Faculty Publications


Surrogate decision makers' perspectives on preventable breakdowns in care among critically ill patients: A qualitative study

UMMS Affiliation

Department of Medicine; Meyers Primary Care Institute

Publication Date


Document Type



Critical Care | Health Communication | Health Services Administration | Health Services Research


OBJECTIVE: To describe surrogate decision makers' (SDMs) perspectives on preventable breakdowns in care among critically ill patients.

METHODS: We screened 70 SDMs of critically ill patients for those who identified a preventable breakdown in care, defined as an event where the SDM believes something "went wrong", that could have been prevented, and resulted in harm. In-depth interviews were conducted with SDMs who identified an eligible event.

RESULTS: 32 of 70 participants (46%) identified at least one preventable breakdown in care, with a total of 75 discrete events. Types of breakdowns involved medical care (n=52), communication (n=59), and both (n=40). Four additional breakdowns were related to problems with SDM bedside access to the patient. Adverse consequences of breakdowns included physical harm, need for additional medical care, emotional distress, pain, suffering, loss of trust, life disruption, impaired decision making, and financial expense. 28 of 32 SDMs raised their concerns with clinicians, yet only 25% were satisfactorily addressed.

CONCLUSION: SDMs of critically ill patients frequently identify preventable breakdowns in care which result in harm.

PRACTICE IMPLICATIONS: An in-depth understanding of the types of events SDMs find problematic and the associated harms is an important step towards improving the safety and patient-centeredness of healthcare.


Adverse events, Communication, Medical errors, Patient safety, Quality of healthcare

DOI of Published Version



Patient Educ Couns. 2016 Oct;99(10):1685-93. doi: 10.1016/j.pec.2016.03.027. Epub 2016 Mar 26. Link to article on publisher's site

Related Resources

Link to Article in PubMed

Journal/Book/Conference Title

Patient education and counseling

PubMed ID