Hastening death in end-of-life care: a survey of doctors

Soc Sci Med. 2009 Dec;69(11):1659-66. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2009.09.025. Epub 2009 Oct 17.


The application of medical technology to prolong life at the expense of quality of life is widely debated in end-of-life care. A national survey of 3733 UK doctors reporting on the care of 2923 people who had died under their care is reported here. Results show that there was no time to make an 'end-of-life decision' (deciding to provide, withdraw or withhold treatment) for 8.5% of those reporting deaths. A further 55.2% reported decisions which they estimated would not hasten death and 28.9% reported decisions they had expected to hasten death. A further 7.4% reported deaths where they had to some degree intended to hasten death. Where patients or someone else had made a request for a hastened death, doctors were more likely to report expecting or at least partly intending to hasten death. Doctors usually made these decisions in consultation with colleagues, relatives and, where feasible, with patients. Intensive care specialists were particularly likely to report a degree of intention to hasten the end of life and to have treated patients lacking the capacity to discuss these decisions. Palliative medicine specialists were the least likely to report decisions they expected or at least partly intended to end life, in spite of reporting a high incidence of requests from their patients for a hastened death. Doctors with strong religious beliefs or who opposed the legalisation of assisted dying were unlikely to report such decisions. Elderly women and those with dementia are groups considered vulnerable in societies where a permissive approach is taken to hastening death in end-of-life care, but doctors describing these deaths were no more likely to report decisions which they expected or at least partly intended to end life. The survey suggests that concerns about the sanctity of life, as well as estimates of the quality of life, enter clinical decision-making.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Chi-Square Distribution
  • Data Collection
  • Death*
  • Decision Making*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Logistic Models
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians' / statistics & numerical data*
  • Religion
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Terminal Care / psychology*
  • Terminal Care / statistics & numerical data
  • United Kingdom
  • Withholding Treatment