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J Med Ethics doi:10.1136/medethics-2013-101854
  • Brief report

Labelling of end-of-life decisions by physicians

  1. Luc Deliens1,2
  1. 1End-of-Life Care Research Group, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) & Ghent University, Brussels, Belgium
  2. 2Department of Public and Occupational Health, EMGO Institute for Health and Care Research, Expertise Centre for Palliative Care, VU University Medical Centre, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
  1. Correspondence to Jef Deyaert, End-of-Life Care Research Group, Vrije Universiteit Brussel & Ghent University, Laarbeeklaan 103, Brussels B-1090, Belgium; jef.deyaert{at}vub.ac.be
  • Received 27 September 2013
  • Revised 9 December 2013
  • Accepted 17 December 2013
  • Published Online First 3 January 2014

Abstract

Objectives Potentially life-shortening medical end-of-life practices (end-of-life decisions (ELDs)) remain subject to conceptual vagueness. This study evaluates how physicians label these practices by examining which of their own practices (described according to the precise act, the intention, the presence of an explicit patient request and the self-estimated degree of life shortening) they label as euthanasia or sedation.

Methods We conducted a large stratified random sample of death certificates from 2007 (N=6927). The physicians named on the death certificate were approached by means of a postal questionnaire asking about ELDs made in each case and asked to choose the most appropriate label to describe the ELD. Response rate was 58.4%.

Results In the vast majority of practices labelled as euthanasia, the self-reported actions of the physicians corresponded with the definition in the Belgian euthanasia legislation; practices labelled as palliative or terminal sedation lack clear correspondence with definitions of sedation as presented in existing guidelines. In these cases, an explicit life-shortening intention by means of drug administration was present in 21.6%, life shortening was estimated at more than 24 h in 51% and an explicit patient request was absent in 79.7%.

Discussion Our results suggest that, unlike euthanasia, the concept of palliative or terminal sedation covers a broad range of practices in the minds of physicians. This ambiguity can be a barrier to appropriate sedation practice and indicates a need for better knowledge of the practice of palliative sedation by physicians.