End of life decisions

General Anaesthesia in End of Life Care – GAEL.

by Dominic Wilkinson @Neonatalethics

Our paper General anaesthesia in end-of-life care: extending the indications for anaesthesia beyond surgery has been published today in Anaesthesia. It is part of a series of work led by researcher Antony Takla, together with Julian Savulescu and Dominic Wilkinson. The recent paper is a collaboration with Professor Jaideep Pandit, Professor of Anaesthesia at Oxford.

 

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Press Release: Medical and ethical experts say ‘make general anaesthesia more widely available for dying patients’

General anaesthesia is widely used for surgery and diagnostic interventions, to ensure the patient is completely unconscious during these procedures. However, in a paper published in Anaesthesia (a journal of the Association of Anaesthetists) ethics and anaesthesia experts from the University of Oxford say that general anaesthesia should be more widely available for patients at the end of their lives.

Painkilling medications (analgesia) are commonly given to dying patients. But they may not be enough, leading to the use of continuous deep sedation (also known as “palliative” or “terminal” sedation).

“However, for some patients these common interventions are not enough. Other patients may express a clear desire to be completely unconscious as they die,” explains co-author Professor Julian Savulescu, Uehiro Chair of Practical Ethics, University of Oxford, UK. “Some dying patients just want to sleep. Patients have a right to be unconscious if they are dying. We have the medical means to provide this and we should.”

The authors make clear that their proposal is not about assisted dying, currently illegal in the UK. Instead, their focus is on options available to ensure that patients are comfortable at the end of their lives.

Put simply, some patients will want to be certain they are unconscious and unaware as their final moments arrive.

“The desire to be unconscious as a means of eliminating the experience of physical or mental suffering is understandable,” says co-author Jaideep Pandit, Professor of Anaesthesia at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, UK. “Unconsciousness through general anaesthesia offers the highest chance of making sure that the patient is unaware of going through an adverse process.”

He adds that “although general anaesthesia in end-of-life care has been used and described in the UK since 1995, modern multidisciplinary guidelines will be needed before this can be offered more widely. Raising this issue now is important, especially in view of international trends showing increased use of general anaesthesia for dying patients.”

Informed consent will, say the authors, be crucial in helping patients understand implications of general anaesthesia for end-of-life care, and the other options they have to manage their final days.

“It is vital that patients are informed of all the legal options available to them to relieve suffering at the end of life. That includes analgesia, sedation and, potentially now, anaesthesia,” says co-author Professor Dominic Wilkinson, Director of Medical Ethics, Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, UK. “The risks and benefits of each should be explained. Patients should be free to choose the option, or combination of options, that best meet their values.”

In a separate survey of the general public, published recently in the journal PLOS One, Professors Wilkinson and Savulescu found a high level of support for access to deep sedation in dying patients. Some 88% of those surveyed said they would like the option of a general anaesthetic if they were dying. About two thirds (64%) said they would personally choose to have an anaesthetic at the end of life.

Professor Wilkinson adds “members of the general public appear to value the option of deep sleep and complete relief from pain if they were dying. Our previous research indicates that the public believes that patients should be given this choice.”

The authors counter any concerns that the use of general anaesthesia for end-of-life care could hasten death. Studies show no statistically significant difference in mean survival time between patients at the end of life who receive continuous deep sedation and those who do not. In several countries, propofol infusion as used for general anaesthesia has been continued for up to 14 days. “This stresses the point that the purpose of administering anaesthesia is not to hasten death but simply to achieve unconsciousness.” explains co- author Antony Takla, Research Associate at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford.

The authors believe the UK medical community should prepare for increased requests for general anaesthesia for end-of-life care, based on current trends in Western Europe and Scandinavia.

They conclude: “we have described a potential role for general anaesthesia in end-of-life care. This has, in reality, been available to UK patients since the 1990s, but is not commonly discussed or provided. There is a strong ethical case for making this option more widely available. This does not imply that existing palliative care practice is deficient. Indeed, we might see that general anaesthesia in end-of-life care is requested by, or suitable for, very few patients.”

“However, the number of patients involved should not alone determine whether this issue is regarded as ethically important. Even if complete unconsciousness is desired by only a few patients, there is a moral imperative for national anaesthesia, palliative care and nursing organisations to prepare for the possibility that general anaesthesia in end-of-life care may be requested by some patients, and to work collaboratively to develop clear protocols to address all of the practical, ethical and medicolegal issues concerned.”

Pandemic Ethics: Saving Lives and Replaceability

Written by Roger Crisp

Imagine two worlds quite different from our own. In Non-intervention, if a person becomes ill with some life-threatening condition, though their pain may be alleviated, no attempt is made to save their lives. In Maximal-intervention, everything possible is done to save the lives of those with life-threatening conditions. Continue reading

Consent Without Alternatives

Written by Ben Davies and Joshua Parker

“COVID-19: Do not resuscitate orders might have been put in place without consent, watchdog says”. This recent headline followed an investigation by the Care Quality Commission into Do Not Attempt Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation (DNACPR) decisions early in the pandemic. In a recent post, Dominic Wilkinson highlights two misconceptions in the coverage of this report, one of which is the ‘consent misconception’.

Dominic’s view is that “there is no ethical requirement…to seek the agreement of patients not to offer or provide a treatment” which a medical professional judges inappropriate. Of course, his position is not that consultation and discussion around CPR is inappropriate, only that consent is not necessary. This is the standard view on consent in this context and, due in part to the Tracey judgment, reflects doctors’ practice. Thus, an important distinction emerges between consenting to the withholding of some treatment, and discussion of that decision. Doctors may be ethically required to discuss a decision without also having an obligation to seek the patient’s consent. The absence of consent, then, does not signal that the DNACPR was unethical, whereas a failure to consult probably will.

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DNACPR Orders in a Pandemic: Misgivings and Misconceptions.

by Dominic Wilkinson @Neonatalethics

This week, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) published an interim report into resuscitation decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a number of media outlets, the report found that in the first wave of the crisis inappropriate and possibly unlawful ‘do not resuscitate’ orders were used “without the consent of patients and families” (see eg Telegraph, Sky).

There are real concerns and important questions to answer about policies and care for patients in care homes and in the community during the pandemic. However, the media stories, and the CQC report itself appear to illustrate two ethical misconceptions.

 

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We’re All Vitalists Now

By Charles Foster

It has been a terrible few months for moral philosophers – and for utilitarians in particular. Their relevance to public discourse has never been greater, but never have their analyses been so humiliatingly sidelined by policy makers across the world. The world’s governments are all, it seems, ruled by a rather crude vitalism. Livelihoods and freedoms give way easily to a statistically small risk of individual death.

That might or might not be the morally right result. I’m not considering here the appropriateness of any government measures, and simply note that whatever one says about the UK Government’s response, it has been supremely successful in generating fear. Presumably that was its intention. The fear in the eyes above the masks is mainly an atavistic terror of personal extinction – a fear unmitigated by rational risk assessment. There is also a genuine fear for others (and the crisis has shown humans at their most splendidly altruistic and communitarian as well). But we really don’t have much ballast.

The fear is likely to endure long after the virus itself has receded. Even if we eventually pluck up the courage to hug our friends or go to the theatre, the fear has shown us what we’re really like, and the unflattering picture will be hard to forget.

I wonder what this new view of ourselves will mean for some of the big debates in ethics and law? The obvious examples are euthanasia and assisted suicide. Continue reading

Forced Medical Feeding

By Roger Crisp

At a recent New St Cross Special Ethics Seminar Prof. Noam Zohar of the Dept. of Philosophy, Bar Ilan University and a member of Israel’s National Bioethics Council, spoke on ‘Debating Forced Medical Feeding: A Critical Examination of Israeli Responses to Hunger Strikes’. Continue reading

Diet, Changing Desires, and Dementia

Written by Ben Davies

Last week saw the launch of a campaign (run by the group Vegetarian For Life) that seeks to ensure that older people in care who have ethical commitments to a particular diet are not given food that violates those commitments. This is, as the campaign makes clear, a particularly pressing issue for those who have some form of dementia who may not be capable of expressing their commitment.

Those behind the campaign are quite right to note that people’s ethical beliefs should not be ignored simply because they are in care, or have a cognitive impairment (see a Twitter thread where I discuss this with a backer of the campaign). But the idea that one’s dietary ethics must be ‘for life’ got me thinking about a more well-established debate about Advance Directives. (I should stress that what I say here should not be taken to be imputing any particular motivation or philosophical commitments to those behind the campaign itself.)

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Abolish Medical Ethics

Written by Charles Foster

In a recent blog post on this site Dom Wilkinson, writing about the case of Vincent Lambert, said this:

If, as is claimed by Vincent’s wife, Vincent would not have wished to remain alive, then the wishes of his parents, of other doctors or of the Pope, are irrelevant. My views or your views on the matter, likewise, are of no consequence. Only Vincent’s wishes matter. And so life support must stop.’

The post was (as everything Dom writes is), completely coherent and beautifully expressed. I say nothing here about my agreement or otherwise with his view – which is comfortably in accord with the zeitgeist, at least in the academy. My purpose is only to point out that if he is right, there is no conceivable justification for a department of medical ethics. Dom is arguing himself out of a job. Continue reading

Guest Post: How Should We Evaluate Deaths?

Written by: Carl Tollef Solberg, Senior Research Fellow, Bergen Centre for Ethics and Priority Setting (BCEPS), University of Bergen.
Espen Gamlund, Professor of Philosophy, Department of Philosophy, University of Bergen.

In 2015, there were 56.4 million deaths worldwide (WHO 2017).[i] Most people would say that the majority of these deaths were bad. If this is the case, why is it so, and are these deaths equally bad?

Death is something we mourn or fear as the worst thing that could happen—whether the deaths of close ones, the deaths of strangers in reported accidents or tragedies, or our own. And yet, being dead is not something we will ever live to experience. This simple truth raises a host of challenging philosophical questions about the negativity surrounding our sense of death, and how and for whom exactly it is harmful. The question of whether death is bad has occupied philosophers for centuries, and the debate emerging in the philosophical literature is referred to as the “badness of death.” Are deaths primarily negative for the survivors, or does death also affect the decedent? What are the differences between death in fetal life, just after birth, or in adolescence? When is the worst time to die? These philosophical questions, although of considerable theoretical interest, is particularly relevant for how we evaluate deaths in global health, and policy-makers spending money to finance different health programs need to know how to answer them.  Continue reading

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