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DNR Orders May Affect Surgical Outcomes

People With Do-Not-Resuscitate Orders More Likely to Die Soon After Surgery
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

April 18, 2011 -- People with do-not-resuscitate (DNR) orders may be more than twice as likely to die soon after surgery, regardless of the urgency of the procedure or health status before surgery.

A new study shows 23% of people with DNR orders died within 30 days after surgery compared with 8% of similarly matched surgery patients without DNR orders. They were also more likely to suffer serious complications and have longer hospital stays.

Researchers say it's the first study to look at the effect of DNR status on surgical results. For every type of surgical procedure analyzed, they found people with DNR orders fared worse than those without them.

Experts say to a certain extent, the results are not surprising because people with DNR orders tend to be much sicker to begin with and would be expected to fare worse after surgery. But the study also raises the question of whether a DNR order changes the way doctors and nurses treat patients.

"If I were a patient, I might worry from this study that having a DNR on my chart might lead to less aggressive treatment," says Clarence Braddock, MD, MPH, professor of medicine and associate dean of medical education at Stanford School of Medicine.

DNR Status Affects Surgery Results

In the study, published in the Archives of Surgery, researchers compared clinical information on 4,128 adults with DNR orders and a comparison group of 4,128 age- and procedure-matched adults without DNR orders who had surgery at one of 120 U.S. hospitals from 2005 to 2008.

The results showed that nearly one in four people with DNR orders died within 30 days of surgery, more than twice the rate found among those without DNR orders.

Most of the people with DNR orders (63%) had non-emergency surgical procedures. But regardless of the urgency of the procedure, the study showed people with DNR orders were two times more likely to die soon after surgery.

"They start out sicker, that's true," says researcher Sanziana Roman, MD, associate professor of surgery at Yale University. "But if we take that into account and take it out of the equation, we still found DNR was on its own was an independent risk factor for death."

DNR Orders Misinterpreted?

A do-not-resuscitate order is a legal form instructing health care providers that cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and other measures should not be performed in the event that the patient’s heartbeat stops.

But Braddock, who is also director of clinical ethics at Stanford's Center for Biomedical Ethics, says some health care providers can take the intent of a DNR order even more broadly. He says previous studies have also shown that DNR orders subconsciously affect how doctors and nurses treat patients. For example, they order fewer tests and don't enter the patient's room as often.

"I do not believe that most patients, as part of the informed consent process around DNR, are aware that it might inadvertently lead to less intensive care," says Braddock.

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