Objective: To describe the attitudes and practice of clinicians in providing sedation and analgesia to dying patients as life-sustaining treatment is withdrawn.
Study design: Prospective case series of 53 consecutive patients who died after the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment in the pediatric intensive care unit at three teaching hospitals in Boston. Data on the reasons why medications were given were obtained from a self-administered anonymous questionnaire completed by the critical care physician and nurse for each case. Data on what medications were given were obtained from a review of the medical record.
Results: Sedatives and/or analgesics were administered to 47 (89%) patients who died after the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment. Patients who were comatose were less likely to receive these medications. Physicians and nurses cited treatment of pain, anxiety, and air hunger as the most common reasons, and hastening death as the least common reason, for administration of these medications. Hastening death was viewed as an "acceptable, unintended side effect" of terminal care by 91% of physician-nurse matched pairs. The mean dose of sedatives and analgesics administered nearly doubled as life-support was withdrawn, and the degree of escalation in dose did not correlate with clinician's views on hastening death.
Conclusion: Clinicians frequently escalate the dose of sedatives or analgesics to dying patients as life-sustaining treatment is withdrawn, citing patient-centered reasons as their principle justification. Hastening death is seen as an unintended consequence of appropriate care. A large majority of physicians and nurses agreed with patient management and were satisfied with the care provided. Care of the dying patient after the forgoing of life-sustaining treatment remains underanalyzed and needs more rigorous examination by the critical care community.