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Forgoing life support in western European intensive care units: The results of an ethical questionnaire

Vincent, Jean-Louis MD, PhD, FCCM

Special Articles

Objective To determine current views of European intensive care physicians regarding end-of-life decisions.

Design A questionnaire was sent to all physician members of the European Society of Intensive Care Medicine. All questionnaires were anonymous.

Results A total of 504 completed questionnaires from 16 western European countries were analyzed. Eighty-seven percent of the respondents were male. Forty-six percent of respondents said that intensive care unit admissions were generally or commonly affected by bed shortages, particularly in the south. Nevertheless, 73% of units frequently admit patients with no hope of survival, although only 33% of respondents felt that such patients should be admitted. Eighty percent of respondents felt that written do-not-resuscitate orders should be applied, but only 58% did so, with a wide variation according to country (from 8% in Italy to 91% in The Netherlands). Ninety-three percent of physicians sometimes withhold treatment from patients with no hope of a meaningful life, but withdrawal of treatment is less common. Forty percent of respondents said that they would deliberately administer large doses of drugs to such patients until death ensued. Forty-nine percent of respondents involved staff, patients, and family in end-of-life decisions. Forty-five percent of respondents felt that an ethics consultation was useful in such situations. Physicians in the countries of southern Europe were less likely than those in the north to apply do-not-resuscitate orders, withhold treatment, and discuss such issues with the patients. However, they were more likely to value the opinion of an ethics consultant.

Conclusions Intensive care unit admissions are frequently limited by the availability of beds across Europe, particularly in the south and in the United Kingdom, yet 73% of intensivists still admit patients with no hope of survival. When treating patients with no hope of survival, 40% of intensivists will deliberately administer large doses of drugs until death ensues. There are interesting differences between what a physician actually does and what he or she believes should be done with regard to various ethical questions. Important differences in attitudes also exist between European countries. (Crit Care Med 1999; 27:1626-1633)

From the Department of Intensive Care, Erasme University Hospital, Free University of Brussels, Belgium.

Address requests for reprints to: Dr. Jean-Louis Vincent, Department of Intensive Care, Erasme University Hospital, Route de Lennik 808, B-1070 Brussels, Belgium. E-mail: jlvincen@resulb.ulb.ac.be.

© 1999 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.