Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment

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POLST (Provider Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment) is an approach to improving end-of-life care in the United States, encouraging providers to speak with patients and create specific medical orders to be honored by health care workers during a medical crisis.[1] POLST began in Oregon in 1991 and currently exists at some level in 42 states and meets the national POLST standard in 18 states. The POLST document is a standardized, portable, brightly colored single page medical order that documents a conversation between a provider and a patient with a serious illness or frailty towards the end of life. A POLST form allows emergency medical services to provide treatment a patients wants before possibly transporting a patient to an emergency facility.

It is a medical order; the POLST form is always signed by a medical professional and, depending upon the state, the patient. A pragmatic rule for initiating a POLST can be if the clinician would not be surprised if the patient were to die within one year.[2] One difference between a POLST form and an advance directive is that the POLST form is designed to be actionable throughout an entire community. It is immediately recognizable and can be used by doctors and first responders (including paramedics, fire departments, police, emergency rooms, hospitals and nursing homes).

Organizations that have passed formal resolutions in support of POLST include the American Bar Association[3] and the Society for Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine[4] (AMDA). Other organizations that support POLST include the American Nurses Association[5] (ANA); the Institute of Medicine;[6] National Association of Social Workers[7] (NASW); AARP;[8] the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine[9] (AAHPM); Pew Charitable Trusts;[10] and the Catholic Health Association of the United States [11](CHA).

POLST orders are also known by other names in some states: Medical Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (MOLST), Medical Orders on Scope of Treatment (MOST), Physician's Orders on Scope of Treatment (POST) or Transportable Physician Orders for Patient Preferences (TPOPP).[12]

What is POLST?[edit]

POLST represents a significant paradigm change in advance care policy by standardizing provider communications through a plan of care in a portable way, rather than focusing solely on standardizing patients' communications via advance directives.[2]

The POLST paradigm requires providers and patients or their surrogates to accomplish three core tasks:

  • First, POLST begins with a conversation between a health care professional and the patient (or the patient's authorized surrogate) about treatment options in light of the patient's current condition.[2]
  • Second, the patient's preferences for treatments are incorporated into medical orders, which are recorded on a highly visible, standardized form that is kept at the front of the medical record or with the patient if the patient lives in the community.[2]
POLST forms record several treatment decisions common to seriously ill patients, for example: cardiopulmonary resuscitation; the level of medical intervention desired in the event of an emergency (comfort only, limited treatment, or full treatment); and the use of artificial nutrition and hydration. As technology and treatment options change, POLST forms will also continue to evolve.[2]
  • Third, providers encourage that the POLST form travels with the individual whenever he or she moves from one setting to another, thereby promoting the continuity of care throughout a community.[2]
The POLST form is designed to transfer across treatment settings, so it is readily available to medical personal, including EMTs, emergency physicians and nursing staff.[13] The POLST program relies upon teamwork and coordinated systems to ensure preferences are honored throughout the health care system. Research suggests the POLST form accurately represents patient treatment preferences the majority of the time[14] and that the treatments provided at the end of life match the orders on the form.[15] An established POLST program can help reduce unwanted hospitalizations and honor the patient's end-of-life wishes.[1]

To determine whether a POLST form should be completed, clinicians should ask themselves, "Would I be surprised if this person died in the next year?" If the answer is that the patient's prognosis is one year or less, then a POLST form is appropriate.[16]

In a 2006 consensus report, the National Quality Form observed that "compared with other advance directive programs, POLST more accurately conveys end-of-life preferences and yields higher adherence by medical professionals." The National Quality Forum and other experts have recommended nationwide implementation of the POLST paradigm [17] Implementation of POLST was also recently recommended by the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine in its report, "Dying in America: Improving Quality and Honoring Individual Preferences Near the End of Life." The report was released September 17, 2014.

Differences between an advance directive and a POLST Form[edit]

Unlike advance directives, a POLST summarizes the patients' wishes in the form of medical orders.[12] An advance directive is a legal document that allows you to share your wishes with your health care team if you can’t speak for yourself. It does so by designating a person you want your medical team to work with (also known as a “surrogate”). You cannot identify a surrogate using a POLST Form. To designate a health care surrogate, patients must use an advance directive.

An advance directive allows you to generally state what treatments you would or would not want in a medical crisis, but it is not a medical order. POLST provides explicit guidance to health professionals under predictable future circumstances based on your current medical condition.[1] A POLST form turns treatment wishes outlined in an advance directive into medical orders.[18] An individual does not need to have an advance directive to have a POLST form although health care professionals recommend that all competent adults have advance directives in place. If the individual lacks decisional capacity, a surrogate can engage in the conversation and the consent process that forms the basis of the POLST process.

The challenges that patients, their families and their healthcare professionals face in a medical emergency can be daunting. Caring and sensitive communication can elicit patients' wishes that can then be documented in an advance directive. To put these preferences into actionable orders requires an additional tool, the POLST form. Healthcare professionals and their organizations can overcome the myriad barriers to communication across systems of care by developing a POLST program, creating a method that respects some of the most deeply held values of patients.[16]

POLST history[edit]

  • 1991: Oregon POLST Task Force Created
  • 1995: First POLST form used in Oregon
  • 2004: National POLST Paradigm begins
  • 2006: West Virginia and Wisconsin adopt POLST. Iowa forms a focus group of health care providers to address the current fragmentation of end-of-life communication.
  • 2008: POLST becomes law in California and MOLST becomes law in New York. Iowa pilot project conducted (continues until 2011).
2009: Massachusetts MOLST Demonstration Project was implemented in Massachusetts pursuant to a mandate in the Commonwealth Acts of 2008. MA MOLST form
  • 2010: Illinois forms the POLST Taskforce with support from more than 60 health care organizations; the Catholic Health Association formally supports POLST.[11]
  • 2011: POLST is signed into law in New Jersey [19] after Governor Chris Christie conditionally vetoes S-2197 for provisions allowing doctors to override patient wishes[citation needed]. Vermont requires all out-of-hospital DNR/COLST orders to be documented on the Vermont DNR/COLST form.
  • 2012: First National POLST Conference held in San Diego, California.[20] Iowa passes legislation to implement the current IPOST form; Illinois passes POLST legislation (Illinois introduces a POLST form in March 2013).
  • 2012: Wisconsin Catholic bishops warn against POLST[21]
  • 2012: Pro-Life groups react to Wisconsin bishops' statement[22][23][24]
  • 2012: Pro-life leaders find parallels between POLST ramifications and similar political expedients in history [25]
  • 2012: The Catholic Health Association specifies how the POLST form is consistent with the Catholic Directives.[26]
  • 2013: POLST becomes law in Indiana and Nevada; 20 states have POLST statutes[27]


Conservative groups like LifeSiteNews, the Media Research Center and the Catholic Medical Association have warned of unintended consequences or potential abuses fostered by POLST adoption.[28][22][23][24][29] In some cases, this results from the way the enabling laws are written. Any document determining a patient's quality of care or life-ending choices carries moral and ethical dilemmas, and POLST instruments (or the protocols and circumstances through which they are explained to patients) have been criticized for this by the Catholic Medical Association. The Catholic Health Association answered criticisms in a white paper entitled “The POLST Paradigm and Form: Facts and Analysis.”

Ethicists have also questioned the validity and relevance of patients' advance choices as compared with the probability of perspectives to change later with context or additional information. Further, medical researchers have criticized the scarcity and quality of data concerning POLST efficacy, citing the power/knowledge imbalance between patient and healthcare provider as well as inaccurate assumptions healthcare providers often have about patient values.[citation needed]

POLST research[edit]

Several studies have supported the use of POLST as a tool to ensure patient wishes are complied with:

  • In a 1998 study, charts of 180 residents at eight Oregon nursing facilities were evaluated over a one-year period. Where the POLST forms of residents included "do not resuscitate" and "comfort measures only" orders, none of the residents received unwanted cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), intensive care, or ventilator support.[30]
  • In 2004, a survey of selected sites revealed that the POLST program was widely used in Oregon nursing facilities. Care matched POLST instructions to a high degree regarding CPR (91%), antibiotics (86%), intravenous fluids (84%), and feeding tubes (94%). Level-of-care instructions (from comfort care to full medical intervention) were followed less often (46%).[31]
  • A 2004 survey of 572 EMTs in Oregon found that a large majority of EMTs felt that the POLST form provides clear instructions about patient preferences and is useful when deciding which treatments to provide.[2]
  • In 2009, researchers assessed the penetration of POLST in hospice programs in Oregon, Wisconsin, and West Virginia.[32] A pilot study indicated that POLST was used widely in hospices in Oregon (100%) and West Virginia (85%) but only regionally in Wisconsin (6%). A majority of hospice staff believed POLST was useful in preventing unwanted resuscitation and initiating conversations about treatment preferences.[2]
  • In 2014, state death records containing cause and location of death were matched with POLST orders for people with a POLST form in the state registry. Conclusion: The association with numbers of deaths in the hospital suggests that end-of-life preferences of people who wish to avoid hospitalization as documented in POLST orders are honored.[33]
  • In 2016, the study included comparison of two different state POLST programs having distinct demographics and different approaches to electronic registries. A key metric evaluated was the relationship of POLST medical intervention orders to in-hospital death, which was evaluated using POLST data linked with state death records. Conclusion: the study indicated similar patterns between the two states in which Comfort Only orders less often resulted in in-hospital deaths, compared to Full Treatment orders.[34]


  1. ^ a b c Meier, D; Beresford L (2009). "POLST Offers Next Stage in Honoring Patient Preferences". Journal of Palliative Medicine. 12 (4): 291–295. PMID 19327064. doi:10.1089/jpm.2009.9648. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Sabatino, C; Naomi Karp. "Improving Advanced Illness Care: The Evolution of State POLST Programs". AARP Public Policy Institute. 
  3. ^ "American Bar Assoc resolution" (PDF). Aug 12, 2008. 
  4. ^ "The Society For Post Acute And Long Term Care Medicine". March 1, 2014. 
  5. ^ "American Nurses Association" (PDF). June 14, 2010. 
  6. ^ "Institute of Medicine, "Dying in America" report - Key Findings (pg 5)". 17 September 2014. 
  7. ^ "NASW Recommendations for the 2015 White House Conference on Aging" (PDF). June 15, 2015. 
  8. ^ "AARP, "Improving Advanced Illness Care: The Evolution of State POLST Programs"" (PDF). April 2011. 
  9. ^ "AAHPM: Advance Care Planning". Retrieved April 7, 2016. 
  10. ^ "Pew Trusts: Capturing Treatment Preferences for End-of-Life Care". December 10, 2015. 
  11. ^ a b "Catholic Health Association, Ethical Currents: POLST" (PDF). 2010. Retrieved April 7, 2016. 
  12. ^ a b Frieden, Joyce (2008). "Hospitals, LTC Facilities Are Moving Toward Newer End-of-Life Strategies: Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment orders are joined by default surrogate approach" (PDF). Caring For Aging. 9: 5. doi:10.1016/s1526-4114(08)60296-6. [dead link]
  13. ^ Hickman, S; Sabatino CP; Moss AH; Nester JW (2008). "The POLST (Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment) Paradigm to Improve End-of-Life Care: Potential State Legal Barriers to Implementation". Journal Law Medical Ethics. 36 (1): 119–140. PMID 18315766. doi:10.1111/j.1748-720X.2008.00242.x. 
  14. ^ Hickman, S.E.; Tolle SW; Brummel-Smith K; Carley MM (September 2004). "Use of the Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment Program in Oregon Nursing Facilities: Beyond Resuscitation Status,". Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. 52 (9): 1424–1429. PMID 15341541. doi:10.1111/j.1532-5415.2004.52402.x. 
  15. ^ Schmidt, T; Hickman SE; Tolle SW; Brooks HS (September 2009). "The Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment Program: Oregon Emergency Medical Technicians Practical Experiences and Attitudes". Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. 52 (9): 1430–4. PMID 15341542. doi:10.1111/j.1532-5415.2004.52403.x. 
  16. ^ a b Dunn, Patrick; Tolle S; Moss A; Black J (2007). "The Polst Paradigm: Respecting the Wishes of Patients and Families". Annals of Long Term Care. 15. 
  17. ^ National Quality Forum (2006). A National framework and preferred practices for palliative and hospice care quality. Washington D.C. [dead link]
  18. ^ Bomba MD, P; Kemp RN, M; Black MD, J (July 2012). "POLST: An Improvement Over Traditional Advance Directives". Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine. 79 (7): 457–464. doi:10.3949/ccjm.79a.11098. 
  19. ^ "POLST Act Signed into Law". The National Law Review. Giordano, Halleran & Ciesla, P.C. 2011-12-26. Retrieved 2012-04-05. 
  20. ^ Center for Ethics in Health Care, Oregon Health & Science :*University. "History of the POLST Paradigm Initiative". 2008. Archived from the original on 5 August 2012. Retrieved 2 February 2012. 
  21. ^ "Upholding the Dignity of Human Life: A Pastoral Statement on Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) from the Catholic Bishops of Wisconsin" (PDF). Wisconsin Catholic Conference. 2012-07-25. Retrieved 2013-11-04. 
  22. ^ a b "Pro-Life Wisconsin commends Wisconsin Catholic Bishops for warning against use of Physician Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment (POLST)". Pro-Life Wisconsin. 2012-07-26. Archived from the original on October 1, 2013. Retrieved 2013-11-04. 
  23. ^ a b Jean McCarthy (2012-07-26). "Wisconsin bishops warn against POLST end of care document". Retrieved 2013-11-04. 
  24. ^ a b Judie Brown (2012-07-31). "Lives ‘Unworthy to Be Lived’ and POLST". Media Research Center. Retrieved 2013-11-04. 
  25. ^ Elizabeth D. Wickham (2012-08-04). "POLST, Conscience and Bishop Clemens von Galen's Sermon on August 3, 1941". LifeTree, Inc. Retrieved 2013-11-04. 
  26. ^ Coleman S.S. Ph.D., Rev. Gerald (November 2012). "POLST Supports Care in Context of ERDs". Catholic Health Association of the United States. CHAUSA. Retrieved April 20, 2016. 
  27. ^ Thaddeus Mason Pope, JD; Melinda Hexum (2012). "Legal Briefing: POLST". Journal of Clinical Ethics. 23: 353–76. PMID 23469698. 
  28. ^ "Upholding the Dignity of Human Life: A Pastoral Statement on Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) from the Catholic Bishops of Wisconsin" (PDF). Wisconsin Catholic Conference. 2012-07-25. Retrieved 2013-11-04. 
  29. ^ Elizabeth D. Wickham (2012-08-04). "POLST, Conscience and Bishop Clemens von Galen's Sermon on August 3, 1941". LifeTree, Inc. Retrieved 2013-11-04. 
  30. ^ Tolle, S; Tilden VP; Dunn P; Nelson c (September 1998). "A Prospective Study of the Efficacy of the Physician Orders for Life Sustaining Treatmen". Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. 46 (9): 1097–1102. PMID 9736102. 
  31. ^ Hickman, S; Tolle SW; Brummel-Smith K; Carley MM (September 2004). "Use of the Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment Program in Oregon Nursing Facilities: Beyond Resuscitation Statu". Journal of American Geriatrics Society. 52 (9): 1424–9. PMID 15341541. doi:10.1111/j.1532-5415.2004.52402.x. 
  32. ^ Hickman, S; Nelson CA; Moss A; Hammes BJ; Terwilliger A; Jackson A; Tolle SW (February 2009). "Use of the Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) Paradigm Program in the Hospice Setting". Journal of Palliative Medicine. 12 (2): 133–141. PMC 2966836Freely accessible. PMID 19207056. doi:10.1089/jpm.2008.0196. 
  33. ^ Fromme, EK; Zive D; Schmidt TA; Cook JNB; Tolle SW (July 2014). "Association Between Physician Orders for Scope of Treatment and In-Hospital Death in Oregon". Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. 62 (7): 1246–51. doi:10.1111/jgs.12889. 
  34. ^ Moss, AH; Zive DM; Falkensteine EC; Fromme EK (June 2016). "Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment Medical Intervention Orders and In-Hospital Death Rates: Comparable Patterns in Two State Registries". Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. 64: 1739–1741. doi:10.1111/jgs.14273. 

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