Perioperative do-not-resuscitate orders--doing 'nothing' when 'something' can be done

Crit Care. 2006;10(4):219. doi: 10.1186/cc4929.


Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) has the ability to reverse premature death. It can also prolong terminal illness, increase discomfort and consume enormous resources. Despite the desire to respect patient autonomy, there are many reasons why withholding CPR may be complicated in the perioperative setting. This review outlines these factors in order to offer practical suggestions and to provoke discussion among perioperative care providers. Although originally described for witnessed intraoperative arrests, closed chest cardiac massage quickly became universal practice, and a legal imperative in many hospitals. Concerns were raised by both health care workers and patient groups; this eventually led to the creation of the do-not-resuscitate (DNR) order. However, legal precedents and ethical interpretations dictated that patients were expected to receive full resuscitation unless there was explicit documentation to the contrary. In short, CPR became the only medical intervention that required an order to prevent it from being performed. Before the 1990s, patients routinely had pre-existing DNR orders suspended during the perioperative period. Several articles criticized this widespread practice, and the policy of 'required reconsideration' was proposed. Despite this, many practical issues have hindered widespread observance of DNR orders for surgical patients, including concerns related to the DNR order itself and difficulties related to the nature of the operating room environment. This review outlines the origins of the DNR order, and how it currently affects the patient presenting for surgery with a pre-existing DNR order. There are many obstacles yet to overcome, but several practical strategies exist to aid health care workers and patients alike.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Advance Directive Adherence / ethics*
  • Advance Directives / ethics*
  • Humans
  • Perioperative Care / ethics*
  • Resuscitation Orders / ethics*