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Doctors frequently fail to predict death of terminally ill patients, research finds

Doctors are often inaccurate when predicting how long terminally ill patients have to live

Doctors are often inaccurate when predicting how long terminally ill patients have to live, a new study has found.

Researchers at the Marie Curie Palliative Care Research Department at University College London (UCL) reviewed 4,642 records of clinicians’ predictions regarding survival of patients approaching the ends of their lives. 

The study revealed wide variation in errors, ranging from an underestimate of 86 days to an overestimate of 93 days.

The research, published in PLOS ONE, did not find that any subgroup of doctors were better at predicting than others.

The team at the Marie Curie Research Department are now conducting further work to identify whether it is possible to train doctors to make better predictions.

Paddy Stone, professor of palliative and end of life care at the Marie Curie Research Department at UCL, said: “Delivering the most appropriate care and treatments for those with terminal illnesses is often dependent on doctors making an accurate prognosis.

Knowing how much time is left can also better equip patients and their carers to make more informed choices about their care. This research suggests that there is no simple way to identify which doctors are better at predicting survival.

Being more senior or more experienced does not necessarily make one a better prognosticator but we now want to see if we can identify how and why some doctors are better at predicting survival than others and to determine if this is a skill that can be taught.”

Professor Bill Noble, medical director at Marie Curie, added: “Making an accurate prediction about length of survival is very difficult, even at the very end.

“While we may be able to improve the accuracy of predictions, these will ultimately always be expressed in terms of risk of death within a particular time frame. 

“No two people are the same – every illness carries a variety of different possible outcomes depending on the individual and the treatment they are receiving.”