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Open Access Research article

Intervention thresholds: a conceptual frame for advance care planning choices

Karen G Scandrett1, Brian Joyce1 and Linda Emanuel12*

Author Affiliations

1 Northwestern University, Buehler Center on Aging, Health & Society, Chicago, Illinois, USA

2 General Internal Medicine, 750 N. Lake Shore Drive, Suite 601, Chicago 60611, Illinois, USA

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BMC Palliative Care 2014, 13:21  doi:10.1186/1472-684X-13-21

Published: 10 April 2014



Advance care planning (ACP) provides for decisions in the event of decisional incapacity. Determining ahead of time what a person may want is challenging and limits the utility of ACP. We present empirical evidence for a new approach to ACP: the individual’s “intervention threshold.” The intervention threshold is intuitively understood by clinicians and lay people, but has not been thoroughly described, measured, or analyzed.


Using a mixed-methods approach to address the concept of the intervention thresholds, we recruited 52 subjects from a population of chronically ill outpatients for structured telephone interviews assessing knowledge, attitudes, and prior ACP activities. Respondents were presented with 11 interventions for each of four medical scenarios. For each scenario, they were asked whether they would accept each intervention. Data was evaluated by descriptive statistics and chi-squared statistics.


Complete data were obtained from 52 patients, mean age of 64.5, 34.6% of whom were male. Only 17.3% reported prior ACP discussion with a physician. Rates of accepting and refusing interventions varied by scenario (p < 0.0001) and intervention intensity (p < 0.0001).


These data provide evidence that people display transitions between wanting or not wanting interventions based on scenarios. Further research is needed to determine effective ways to identify, measure, and represent the components of an individual’s intervention threshold in order to facilitate informed decision making during future incapacity.

End-of-life; Advance care planning; Decision making