Journal of General Internal Medicine

, Volume 24, Issue 6, pp 695–701 | Cite as

Racial and Ethnic Differences in Preferences for End-of-Life Treatment

  • Amber E. BarnatoEmail author
  • Denise L. Anthony
  • Jonathan Skinner
  • Patricia M. Gallagher
  • Elliott S. Fisher
Original Article



Studies using local samples suggest that racial minorities anticipate a greater preference for life-sustaining treatment when faced with a terminal illness. These studies are limited by size, representation, and insufficient exploration of sociocultural covariables.


To explore racial and ethnic differences in concerns and preferences for medical treatment at the end of life in a national sample, adjusting for sociocultural covariables.


Dual-language (English/Spanish), mixed-mode (telephone/mail) survey.


A total of 2,847 of 4,610 eligible community-dwelling Medicare beneficiaries age 65 or older on July 1, 2003 (62% response).


Demographics, education, financial strain, health status, social networks, perceptions of health-care access, quality, and the effectiveness of mechanical ventilation (MV), and concerns and preferences for medical care in the event the respondent had a serious illness and less than 1 year to live.


Respondents included 85% non-Hispanic whites, 4.6% Hispanics, 6.3% blacks, and 4.2% “other” race/ethnicity. More blacks (18%) and Hispanics (15%) than whites (8%) want to die in the hospital; more blacks (28%) and Hispanics (21.2%) than whites (15%) want life-prolonging drugs that make them feel worse all the time; fewer blacks (49%) and Hispanics (57%) than whites (74%) want potentially life-shortening palliative drugs, and more blacks (24%, 36%) and Hispanics (22%, 29%) than whites (13%, 21%) want MV for life extension of 1 week or 1 month, respectively. In multivariable analyses, sociodemographic variables, preference for specialists, and an overly optimistic belief in the effectiveness of MV explained some of the greater preferences for life-sustaining drugs and mechanical ventilation among non-whites. Black race remained an independent predictor of concern about receiving too much treatment [adjusted OR = 2.0 (1.5–2.7)], preference for dying in a hospital [AOR = 2.3 (1.6–3.2)], receiving life-prolonging drugs [1.9 (1.4–2.6)], MV for 1 week [2.3 (1.6–3.3)] or 1 month’s [2.1 (1.6–2.9)] life extension, and a preference not to take potentially life-shortening palliative drugs [0.4 (0.3–0.5)]. Hispanic ethnicity remained an independent predictor of preference for dying in the hospital [2.2 (1.3–4.0)] and against potentially life-shortening palliative drugs [0.5 (0.3–0.7)].


Greater preference for intensive treatment near the end of life among minority elders is not explained fully by confounding sociocultural variables. Still, most Medicare beneficiaries in all race/ethnic groups prefer not to die in the hospital, to receive life-prolonging drugs that make them feel worse all the time, or to receive MV.


race ethnicity terminal care mechanical ventilation Medicare 



The Center for Survey Research at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, contributed to questionnaire design and conducted the survey. This study was presented at the 2006 annual meeting of the Society for General Internal Medicine. The authors thank Judith R. Lave and Robert M. Arnold for their suggestions and feedback on earlier drafts.

Conflict Of Interest Summary

None of the authors has any affiliations with or financial involvement, within the past 5 years and foreseeable future (e.g., employment, consultancies, honoraria, stock ownership or options, expert testimony, grants or patents received or pending, or royalties) with any organization or entity with a financial interest in or financial conflict with the subject matter or materials discussed in the manuscript.

Supplementary material

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Copyright information

© Society of General Internal Medicine 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Amber E. Barnato
    • 1
    Email author
  • Denise L. Anthony
    • 2
  • Jonathan Skinner
    • 3
  • Patricia M. Gallagher
    • 4
  • Elliott S. Fisher
    • 3
    • 5
  1. 1.Center for Research on Health CareUniversity of PittsburghPittsburghUSA
  2. 2.Department of SociologyDartmouth CollegeHanoverUSA
  3. 3.Center for the Evaluative Clinical SciencesDartmouth Medical SchoolHanoverUSA
  4. 4.Center for Survey ResearchUniversity of MassachusettsBostonUSA
  5. 5.VA Outcomes GroupWhite River JunctionUSA

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