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BMC Medical Ethics





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Background: Severe brain injury is a leading cause of death and disability. Diagnosis and prognostication are difficult, and errors occur often. Novel neuroimaging methods can improve diagnostic and prognostic accuracy, especially in patients with prolonged disorders of consciousness (PDoC). Yet it is currently unknown how family caregivers understand this information, raising ethical concerns that disclosure of neuroimaging results could result in therapeutic misconception or false hope. Methods: To examine these ethical concerns, we conducted semi-structured interviews with caregivers of patients with PDoC who were enrolled in a concurrent neuroimaging research program designed to detect covert consciousness following severe brain injury. Caregivers held surrogate decision-making status for a patient. Interviews were conducted at two time points for each caregiver. The first interview occurred before the disclosure of neuroimaging results. The second occurred after disclosure. Descriptive analysis was applied to the data of four interview topics: (1) expectations for neuroimaging; (2) reactions to evidence of preserved cognition; (3) reactions to null results; and (4) understanding of the results and study. Results: Twelve caregivers participated in the study; two caregivers shared surrogate decision-making status for one patient with PDoC. Twenty-one interviews were completed; one caregiver declined to participate in the post-disclosure interview. Three patients with PDoC associated with the study displayed evidence of covert consciousness. Overall, caregivers understood the neuroimaging research and results. Caregivers who received results of covert consciousness were generally pleased. However, there was some variation in expectations and reactions to these data and null results. Conclusion: This study, for the first time, reveals caregiver expectations for and reactions to neuroimaging evidence of covert consciousness in patients with PDoC. Caregivers understood the neuroimaging research and results, casting doubt on speculative ethical concerns regarding therapeutic misconception and false hope. However, disclosure of neuroimaging result could be improved. Pre-disclosure consultations might assist professionals in shaping caregiver expectations. Standardization of disclosure might also improve comprehension of the results.