Intentional sedation to unconsciousness at the end of life: findings from a national physician survey.
CONTEXT: The terms "palliative sedation" and "terminal sedation" have been used to refer to both proportionate palliative sedation, in which unconsciousness is a foreseen but unintended side effect, and palliative sedation to unconsciousness, in which physicians aim to make their patients unconscious until death. It has not been clear to what extent palliative sedation to unconsciousness is accepted and practiced by U.S. physicians. OBJECTIVES: To investigate U.S. physician acceptance and practice of palliative sedation to unconsciousness and to identify predictors of that practice. METHODS: In 2010, a survey was mailed to 2016 practicing U.S. physicians. Criterion measures included self-reported practice of palliative sedation to unconsciousness until death and physician endorsement of such sedation for a hypothetical patient with existential suffering at the end of life. RESULTS: Of the 1880 eligible physicians, 1156 responded to the survey (62%). One in ten (141/1156) physicians had sedated a patient in the previous 12 months with the specific intention of making the patient unconscious until death, and two of three physicians opposed sedation to unconsciousness for existential suffering, both in principle (68%, n = 773) and in the case of a hypothetical dying patient (72%, n = 831). Eighty-five percent (n = 973) of physicians agreed that unconsciousness is an acceptable side effect of palliative sedation but should not be directly intended. CONCLUSION: Although there is widespread support among U.S. physicians for proportionate palliative sedation, intentionally sedating dying patients to unconsciousness until death is neither the norm in clinical practice nor broadly supported for the treatment of primarily existential suffering.
Putman, MS; Yoon, JD; Rasinski, KA; Curlin, FA
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