Behavioral economic implementation strategies to improve serious illness communication between clinicians and high-risk patients with cancer: protocol for a cluster randomized pragmatic trial

Samuel U. Takvorian*, Justin Bekelman, Rinad S. Beidas, Robert Schnoll, Alicia B.W. Clifton, Tasnim Salam, Peter Gabriel, E. Paul Wileyto, Callie A. Scott, David A. Asch, Alison M. Buttenheim, Katharine A. Rendle, Krisda Chaiyachati, Rachel C. Shelton, Sue Ware, Corey Chivers, Lynn M. Schuchter, Pallavi Kumar, Lawrence N. Shulman, Nina O’ConnorAdina Lieberman, Kelly Zentgraf, Ravi B. Parikh

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Background: Serious illness conversations (SICs) are an evidence-based approach to eliciting patients’ values, goals, and care preferences that improve patient outcomes. However, most patients with cancer die without a documented SIC. Clinician-directed implementation strategies informed by behavioral economics (“nudges”) that identify high-risk patients have shown promise in increasing SIC documentation among clinicians. It is unknown whether patient-directed nudges that normalize and prime patients towards SIC completion—either alone or in combination with clinician nudges that additionally compare performance relative to peers—may improve on this approach. Our objective is to test the effect of clinician- and patient-directed nudges as implementation strategies for increasing SIC completion among patients with cancer. Methods: We will conduct a 2 × 2 factorial, cluster randomized pragmatic trial to test the effect of nudges to clinicians, patients, or both, compared to usual care, on SIC completion. Participants will include 166 medical and gynecologic oncology clinicians practicing at ten sites within a large academic health system and their approximately 5500 patients at high risk of predicted 6-month mortality based on a validated machine-learning prognostic algorithm. Data will be obtained via the electronic medical record, clinician survey, and semi-structured interviews with clinicians and patients. The primary outcome will be time to SIC documentation among high-risk patients. Secondary outcomes will include time to SIC documentation among all patients (assessing spillover effects), palliative care referral among high-risk patients, and aggressive end-of-life care utilization (composite of chemotherapy within 14 days before death, hospitalization within 30 days before death, or admission to hospice within 3 days before death) among high-risk decedents. We will assess moderators of the effect of implementation strategies and conduct semi-structured interviews with a subset of clinicians and patients to assess contextual factors that shape the effectiveness of nudges with an eye towards health equity. Discussion: This will be the first pragmatic trial to evaluate clinician- and patient-directed nudges to promote SIC completion for patients with cancer. We expect the study to yield insights into the effectiveness of clinician and patient nudges as implementation strategies to improve SIC rates, and to uncover multilevel contextual factors that drive response to these strategies. Trial registration:, NCT04867850. Registered on April 30, 2021.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number90
JournalImplementation Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2021


  • Advanced care planning
  • End-of-life cancer care
  • Pragmatic trials
  • Serious illness conversation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Health Policy
  • Health Informatics


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