Most states have adopted legislation that allows patients to designate by advance directives the type of health care they would like to receive if they should become incompetent while suffering from a terminal illness. The living will is one of the most common of these legal instruments. Unlike most studies that have examined very sick or hospitalized patients' preferences regarding life-sustaining treatments, our study explores the concerns of 70 ambulatory veterans from a general medical clinic regarding living wills. Before the interview, 43% of patients reported never HAVing heard of living wills. At interview, 4% of the patients had a living will, 33% intended to sign a living will but had not done so (INTEND), 54% were undecided about living wills (UNDECIDED), and 9% did not want a living will. Compared with UNDECIDED patients, all other patients did not differ in the use of health care services during the previous year or in diagnoses. INTEND patients, however, were significantly more likely to be white, to express poorer health status, to know someone with a living will, and to have previously discussed the topic. UNDECIDED patients were more likely than INTEND patients to report that religious beliefs about living wills affected their decision. Virtually all (91%) of the respondents believed that signing a living will would not affect their treatment. These data suggest that many patients may not know that they can have a living will and that discussions with those who already have a living will may be helpful in educational programs designed to promote informed patient decision-making.
(Arch Intern Med. 1992;152:343-347)