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Open Access Research article

Physicians’ attitudes toward medical and ethical challenges for patients in the vegetative state: comparing Canadian and German perspectives in a vignette survey

Katja Kuehlmeyer1, Nicole Palmour2, Richard J Riopelle3, James L Bernat4, Ralf J Jox1 and Eric Racine235*

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Ethics, History and Theory of Medicine, University of Munich, Munich, Germany

2 Neuroethics Research Unit, Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal, Montréal, Canada

3 Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery, McGill University, Montréal, Canada

4 Neurology Department, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Lebanon, USA

5 Department of Medicine and Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, Université de Montréal, Montréal, Canada

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BMC Neurology 2014, 14:119  doi:10.1186/1471-2377-14-119

Published: 5 June 2014

Abstract

Background

Physicians treating patients in the vegetative state (VS) must deal with uncertainty in diagnosis and prognosis, as well as ethical issues. We examined whether physicians’ attitudes toward medical and ethical challenges vary across two national medical practice settings.

Methods

A comparative survey was conducted among German and Canadian specialty physicians, based on a case vignette about the VS. Similarities and differences of participants’ attitudes toward medical and ethical challenges between the two samples were analyzed with non-parametric tests (Mann-Whitney-U-Test).

Results

The overall response rate was 13.4%. Eighty percent of all participants correctly applied the diagnostic category of VS with no significant differences between countries. Many of the participants who chose the correct diagnosis of VS attributed capabilities to the patient, particularly the ability to feel pain (70%), touch (51%) and to experience hunger and thirst (35%). A large majority of participants (94%) considered the limitation of life-sustaining treatment (LST) under certain circumstances, but more Canadian participants were in favor of always limiting LST (32% vs. 12%; Chi-square: p < 0.001). Finding long-term care placement was considered more challenging by Canadian participants whereas discontinuing LST was much more challenging for German participants.

Conclusions

Differences were found between two national medical practice settings with respect to physicians’ experiences and attitudes about treatment limitation about VS in spite of comparable diagnostic knowledge.

Keywords:
Vegetative state; End-of-life; Prognosis; Ethics