Background: Terminal sedation in patients nearing death is an important issue related to end-of-life care.
Objective: To describe the practice of terminal sedation in the Netherlands.
Design: Face-to-face interviews.
Setting: The Netherlands.
Participants: Nationwide stratified sample of 482 physicians; 410 responded and 211 of these reported characteristics of their most recent terminal sedation case.
Measurements: Physician reports of frequency of terminal sedation (defined as the administration of drugs to keep the patient in deep sedation or coma until death, without giving artificial nutrition or hydration), characteristics of the decision-making process, drugs used, the estimated life-shortening effect, and frequency of euthanasia discussions.
Results: Of respondents, 52% (95% CI, 48% to 57%) had ever used terminal sedation. Of the 211 most recent cases, physicians used terminal sedation to alleviate severe pain in 51% of patients (CI, 44% to 58%), agitation in 38% (CI, 32% to 45%), and dyspnea in 38% (CI, 32% to 45%). Physicians reported discussing with patients the decision to use deep sedation in 59% of the 211 most recent cases (CI, 52% to 66%) and the decision to forgo artificial nutrition or hydration in 34% (CI, 28% to 41%). Hastening death was partly the intention of the physician in 47% (CI, 41% to 54%) of cases and the explicit intention in 17% (CI, 13% to 22%) of cases.
Limitations: The generalizability of physician reports about their most recent cases to all terminal sedation cases is uncertain. In addition, the findings are subject to recall bias and may not apply to other geographic settings.
Conclusions: Terminal sedation precedes a substantial number of deaths in the Netherlands. In about two thirds of most recently reported cases, physicians indicated that in addition to alleviating symptoms, they intended to hasten death.