J Burn Care Res. 2020 Oct 10:iraa165. doi: 10.1093/jbcr/iraa165. Online ahead of print.
For critically ill burn patients without a next of kin, the medical team is tasked with becoming the surrogate decision maker. This poses ethical and legal challenges for burn providers. Despite this frequent problem, there has been no investigation of how the presence of a next of kin affects treatment in burn patients. To evaluate this relationship, a retrospective chart review was performed on a cohort of patients who died during the acute phase of their burn care. Variables collected included age, gender, length of stay, total body surface area, course of treatment, and presence of a next of kin. In total, 67 patients met inclusion criteria. Of these patients, 14 (21%) did not have a next of kin involved in medical decisions. Patients without a next of kin were significantly younger (p=.02), more likely to be homeless (p<.01), had higher total body surface area burns (p=.008), had shorter length of stay (p<.001), and were 5 times less likely to receive comfort care (p=.01). Differences in gender and ethnicity were not statistically significant. We report that patients without a next of kin present to participate in medical decisions are transitioned to comfort care less often despite having a higher burden of injury. This disparity in standard of care demonstrates a need for a cultural shift in burn care to prevent suffering of these marginalized patients. Burn providers should be empowered to reduce suffering when no decision maker is present.