Purpose: Palliative sedation therapy (PST) is a controversial issue. There is a need for internationally accepted definitions and standards.
Methods: A systematic review of the literature was performed by an international panel of 29 palliative care experts. Draft papers were written on various topics concerning PST. This paper is a summary of the individual papers, written after two meetings and extensive e-mail discussions.
Results: PST is defined as the use of specific sedative medications to relieve intolerable suffering from refractory symptoms by a reduction in patient consciousness, using appropriate drugs carefully titrated to the cessation of symptoms. The initial dose of sedatives should usually be small enough to maintain the patients' ability to communicate periodically. The team looking after the patient should have enough expertise and experience to judge the symptom as refractory. Advice from palliative care specialists is strongly recommended before initiating PST. In the case of continuous and deep PST, the disease should be irreversible and advanced, with death expected within hours to days. Midazolam should be considered first-line choice. The decision whether or not to withhold or withdraw hydration should be discussed separately. Hydration should be offered only if it is considered likely that the benefit will outweigh the harm. PST is distinct from euthanasia because (1) it has the intent to provide symptom relief, (2) it is a proportionate intervention, and (3) the death of the patient is not a criterion for success. PST and its outcome should be carefully monitored and documented.
Conclusion: When other treatments fail to relieve suffering in the imminently dying patient, PST is a valid palliative care option.