Background: In France, there are no guidelines available on withholding and withdrawal of life-sustaining treatments, and information on the frequency of such decisions is scarce.
Methods: We undertook a prospective 2-month survey in 113, of a total of 220, intensive-care units (ICUs) in France to study the frequency of, and processes leading to, decisions to withhold and withdraw life-sustaining treatments.
Findings: Life-supporting therapies were withheld or withdrawn in 807 (11.0%) of 7309 patients (withholding in 336 [4.6%] and withdrawal in 471 [6.4%], preceded in 358 by withholding). Of 1175 deaths in ICU, 628 (53%) were preceded by a decision to limit life-supporting therapies. Futility and poor expected quality of life were the most frequently cited reasons. Decisions were strongly correlated with the simplified acute physiological score, but an independent centre effect persisted after adjustment for this score. Decisions were mostly taken by all the ICU medical staff, with (54%) or without (34%) the nursing staff; however, a single physician made decisions in 12% of cases. The patient's family was involved in the decision-making process in 44% of cases. The patient's willingness to limit his or her own care was known in only 8% of the cases; only 0.5% of the patients were involved in decisions.
Interpretation: Withholding and withdrawal of life-support therapies are widely practised in French ICUs, despite their prohibition by the French legislation. The lack of an official statement from French scientific bodies may explain several limitations on the various steps of the decision-making process.