The ability of the medical profession to sustain life, or more appropriately, to prolong dying, in patients with terminal illness, creates a most complex and controversial situation for all involved: the patient, if mentally alert; the patient's family; and the medical care team including physicians, nurses and attendants. This situation is especially complex in large acute care hospitals where medical and nursing students, residents and house officers receive advanced medical training. A major problem, prolonging the dying of the terminally ill, with its medical, legal, ethical and economic complexities now confronts American society. The problem is particularly acute in teaching hospitals, in which one finds a disproportionate number of terminally ill patients. The ability to work at these questions as a community rather than as adversaries will determine much about the ability of the health care system to respect the dignity and autonomy of those who seek aid and comfort when faced with serious illness and impending death. Better communication between the physicians, health care providers, the lawyers and ethicists must be developed in order to solve these problems. Over the next ten years society and our elected representatives will be making very demanding decisions about the use of the health dollar. One possible way to prevent increasing costs is to reach significant agreement on the proper care of the dying. Proper care for the dying is being considered, discussed, and evaluated by very thoughtful people. It is not governments which should decide who is to live or who is to die. There is the serious problem of the 'slippery slope' to euthanasia by omission if cost containment becomes the major force in formulating policy on the proper care of the dying.
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