Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and assisted ventilation: how patients decide

Palliat Support Care. 2010 Jun;8(2):207-13. doi: 10.1017/S1478951510000027.


Background: Throughout the course of their illness, people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) must make many treatment decisions; however, none has such a significant impact on quality of life and survival as decisions about assisted ventilation.

Objective: The purpose of this study was to better understand the experience of decision-making about assisted ventilation for ALS patients.

Methods: Using qualitative phenomenology methodology, 10 semi-structured interviews were conducted with persons with ALS and their caregivers to elicit factors that are pertinent to their decision-making process about assisted ventilation.

Results: Six main themes emerged from the interviews. (1) the meaning of the intervention - participants made a sharp distinction between non-invasive ventilation, which they viewed as a means to relieve symptoms of respiratory failure, and invasive ventilation, which they viewed as taking over their breathing and thereby saving their life when they otherwise would die, (2) the importance of context - including functional status, available supports, and financial implications, (3) the importance of values - with respect to communication, relationships, autonomy, life, and quality of life, (4) the effect of fears - particularly respiratory distress, chocking, running out of air, and the process of death itself, (5) the need for information - how use of assisted ventilation would impact daily life, how death from respiratory failure would occur, how caregivers and persons with ALS differ in their information needs and common misconceptions, and (6) adaptation to or acceptance of the intervention - a lengthy process that involved gradual familiarization with the equipment and its benefits.

Significance of the research: People with ALS and caregivers value autonomy in decision-making about assisted ventilation. Their decision-making process is neither wholly rational nor self-interested, and includes factors that health professionals should anticipate and address. Discussions about assisted ventilation and timing should be tailored to each individual and undertaken periodically.

MeSH terms

  • Activities of Daily Living
  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis / complications
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis / psychology*
  • Communication
  • Decision Making*
  • Family / psychology
  • Fear
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Patient Acceptance of Health Care / psychology*
  • Patient Education as Topic
  • Personal Autonomy
  • Qualitative Research
  • Quality of Life / psychology
  • Quebec
  • Respiration, Artificial / methods
  • Respiration, Artificial / psychology*
  • Respiratory Insufficiency / etiology
  • Respiratory Insufficiency / therapy*
  • Social Support
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Terminal Care