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Do-Not-Resuscitate (DNR) Orders


Charles Sabatino

, JD, American Bar Association

Last full review/revision May 2021| Content last modified May 2021

A do-not-resuscitate (DNR) order placed in a person’s medical record by a doctor informs the medical staff that cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) should not be attempted. Because CPR is not attempted, other resuscitative measures that follow it (such as electric shocks to the heart and artificial respirations by insertion of a breathing tube) will also be avoided. This order has been useful in preventing unnecessary and unwanted invasive treatment at the end of life. The success rate of CPR near the end of life is extremely low. (See also Overview of Legal and Ethical Issues in Health Care.)

As part of care planning for seriously ill patients, doctors should discuss with seriously ill patients the possibility of cardiopulmonary arrest (when the heart stops and breathing ceases) in light of their immediate medical condition, describe CPR procedures and likely outcomes, and ask patients about treatment preferences. If a person is incapable of making a decision about CPR, an authorized surrogate may make the decision.

A DNR order does not mean "do not treat." Rather, it means only that CPR will not be attempted. Other treatments (for example, antibiotic therapy, transfusions, dialysis, or use of a ventilator) that may prolong life can still be provided. Depending on the person's condition, these other treatments are usually more likely to be successful than CPR. Treatment that keeps the person free of pain and comfortable (called palliative care) should always be given.

All states also provide for special DNR orders that are effective outside of hospitals, wherever the person may be in the community. These are called out-of-hospital DNR orders, Comfort Care orders, No CPR orders, or other terms. Generally, they require the signature of the doctor and patient (or patient’s surrogate), and they provide the patient with a visually distinct quick identification form, bracelet, or necklace that emergency medical services personnel can identify. These orders are especially important for terminally ill people living in the community who want only comfort care and no resuscitation if their heart or breathing stops. Living wills and health care powers of attorney are not generally effective in emergency situations. Additionally, first responders are almost always required to initiate life support unless a valid DNR order is in place and presented to them. Many states are now incorporating DNR status into a portable medical order called Physician Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment.

Medical Terms Related to Life-Sustaining Treatment

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR): An action taken to revive a person whose heart stops (cardiac arrest), whose breathing stops (respiratory arrest), or whose heart and breathing stop (cardiopulmonary arrest).

Code: The summoning of professionals trained in CPR to revive a person in cardiac, respiratory, or cardiopulmonary arrest.

No code: An order signed by a person’s doctor stating that CPR should not be attempted. (Also called a do-not-resuscitate [DNR] order.)

Irreversible coma: A coma or persistent vegetative state from which the person is not expected to recover.

Persistent vegetative state: A state in which a person has no awareness but may still have certain characteristics that can simulate awareness, such as opening their eyes, having normal sleeping and waking periods, sucking, chewing, coughing, gagging, and swallowing.

Terminally ill: The medical state of being near death where there is no possibility of cure.

Life-sustaining treatment: Any medical procedure, drug, or technology that can keep a person alive for a period of time but that cannot cure a terminal condition.

Palliative care: Specialized medical care that is focused on keeping a person free of pain and the stresses of a serious illness, regardless of the diagnosis, and is aimed at improving quality of life for both the person and family.

Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST)

A growing number of state and local programs address a range of emergency life-sustaining treatments in addition to cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) for people with advanced illness. These programs are most commonly called Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment or POLST but can have other names, including Medical Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (MOLST), Physician Orders for Scope of Treatment (POST), Medical Orders for Scope of Treatment (MOST), Clinical Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (COLST), and Transportable Physician Orders for Patient Preferences (TPOPP).

POLST and similar programs involve a physician-initiated discussion and shared decision-making process with people with advanced or end-stage illness. It results in a portable set of medical orders, consistent with the person’s goals of care, addressing the person’s wishes in regards to the use of CPR, the overall level of medical intervention wanted (for example, full treatment, comfort care only, or some intermediate level), and whether to seek or avoid hospitalization. Most POLST programs also address artificial nutrition and hydration. Some states address additional considerations, such as use of a ventilator or antibiotics that potentially could be used in a medical crisis. POLST is applicable across all care settings. In a medical crisis, emergency medical technicians and other health care practitioners should first follow POLST. If immediate action is not essential, POLST should be reviewed with the person whenever the person's condition changes significantly, the person's venue of care changes, or the person chooses to change his or her wishes. For people lacking decision-making capacity, their authorized surrogates can act on their behalf. POLST differs from advance directives in that it applies only to people with advanced illness, it provides a treatment plan in the form of medical orders for emergency decisions, and it is focused on the person’s current condition, not a future hypothetical condition.

POLST and similar programs do not exist in every state or community, but their development is spreading rapidly.

Differences Between Advance Directives and POLST


Advance Directives



All adults, regardless of current health

Recognized in every state

Any adult (or parent for a minor child) with a serious illness or frailty when the health care practitioner would not be surprised if the patient died within the next year or two

POLST programs not available in every state

Who writes it

The person, with or without an attorney

A doctor or, in some states, a nurse practitioner or physician assistant after care planning has been discussed with the person (or, if the person is incapacitated, with the surrogate decision maker)

Where completed

Any setting

Medical settings

What it communicates

Preferences (not medical orders) regarding possible future treatment alternatives and appointment of a substitute medical decision maker (health care agent)

A doctor's medical orders for major critical care decisions that could arise because of the patient's current medical condition

Decisions by surrogates (substitute decision makers)

Surrogates cannot make an advance directive for the patient

Surrogates can participate in and consent to POLST when patients lack the capacity to make their own decisions

Emergency medical care

Generally does not apply to emergency care

Applies to emergency care

Responsible for providing the documents to health care practitioners wherever care is provided

Patient's and family's responsibility

Health care practitioner's responsibility

Who reviews and revises the document as needed

The person who made the advance directive

The health care practitioner with the person or surrogate

Use of both documents for the same person

Specifies general goals and wishes through all stages of the person's life and serves as a starting point for discussing POLST

Complements advance directives by converting the person's general goals and wishes into specific medical orders

POLST = Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment.

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