Background: The "Patients' Rights and End of Life Care" Act came into force in France in 2005. It allows withholding/withdrawal of life-support treatment, and intensified use of medications that may hasten death through a double effect, as long as hastening death is not the purpose of the decision. It also specifies the requirements of the decision-making process. This study assesses the situation by examining the frequency of end-of-life decisions by patients' and physicians' characteristics, and describes the decision-making processes.
Methods: We conducted a nationwide retrospective study of a random sample of adult patients who died in December 2009. Questionnaires were mailed to the physicians who certified/attended these deaths. Cases were weighted to adjust for response rate bias. Bivariate analyses and logistic regressions were performed for each decision.
Results: Of all deaths, 16.9% were sudden deaths with no information about end of life, 12.2% followed a decision to do everything possible to prolong life, and 47.7% followed at least one medical decision that may certainly or probably hasten death: withholding (14.6%) or withdrawal (4.2%) of treatments, intensified use of opioids and/or benzodiazepines (28.1%), use of medications to deliberately hasten death (i.e. not legally authorized) (0.8%), at the patient's request (0.2%) or not (0.6%). All other variables held constant, cause of death, patient's age, doctor's age and specialty, and place of death, influenced the frequencies of decisions. When a decision was made, 20% of the persons concerned were considered to be competent. The decision was discussed with the patient if competent in 40% (everything done) to 86% (intensification of alleviation of symptoms) of cases. Legal requirements regarding decision-making for incompetent patients were frequently not complied with.
Conclusions: This study shows that end-of-life medical decisions are common in France. Most are in compliance with the 2005 law (similar to some other European countries). Nonetheless, the study revealed cases where not all legal obligations were met or where the decision was totally illegal. There is still a lot to be done through medical education and population awareness-raising to ensure that the decision-making process is compatible with current legislation, the physician's duty of care and the patient's rights.