OBJECTIVES: Life-sustaining treatment at the end of life gives rise to many ethical problems in Japan. Recent surveys of Japanese physicians suggested that they tend to treat terminally ill patients aggressively. We studied why Japanese physicians were reluctant to withhold or withdraw life-support from terminally ill patients and what affected their decisions. DESIGN AND PARTICIPANTS: A qualitative study design was employed, using a focus group interview with seven physicians, to gain an in-depth understanding of attitudes and rationales in Japan regarding medical care at the end of life. RESULTS: Analysis revealed that physicians and patients' family members usually make decisions about life-sustaining treatment, while the patients' wishes are unavailable or not taken into account. Both physicians and family members tend to consider withholding or withdrawing life-sustaining treatment as abandonment or even killing. The strongest reason to start cardiopulmonary resuscitation- and to continue it until patients' family members arrive-seems to be the family members' desire to be at the bedside at the time of death. All physicians participating in our study regarded advance directives that provide information as to patients' wishes about life-sustaining treatment desirable. All expressed concern, however, that it would be difficult to forego or discontinue life-support based on a patient's advance directive, particularly when the patient's family opposed the directive. CONCLUSION: Our group interview suggested several possible barriers to death with dignity and the appropriate use of advance directives in Japan. Further qualitative and quantitative research in this regard is needed.
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