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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Sedation in palliative care – a critical analysis of 7 years experience

H Christof Muller-Busch12*, Inge Andres1 and Thomas Jehser1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Palliative Medicine, Gemeinschaftskrankenhaus Havelhoehe, D-14089 Berlin, Germany

2 University Witten/Herdecke, D-58448 Witten, Germany

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BMC Palliative Care 2003, 2:2  doi:10.1186/1472-684X-2-2

Published: 13 May 2003

Abstract

Background

The administration of sedatives in terminally ill patients becomes an increasingly feasible medical option in end-of-life care. However, sedation for intractable distress has raised considerable medical and ethical concerns. In our study we provide a critical analysis of seven years experience with the application of sedation in the final phase of life in our palliative care unit.

Methods

Medical records of 548 patients, who died in the Palliative Care Unit of GK Havelhoehe between 1995–2002, were retrospectively analysed with regard to sedation in the last 48 hrs of life. The parameters of investigation included indication, choice and kind of sedation, prevalence of intolerable symptoms, patients' requests for sedation, state of consciousness and communication abilities during sedation. Critical evaluation included a comparison of the period between 1995–1999 and 2000–2002.

Results

14.6% (n = 80) of the patients in palliative care had sedation given by the intravenous route in the last 48 hrs of their life according to internal guidelines. The annual frequency to apply sedation increased continuously from 7% in 1995 to 19% in 2002. Main indications shifted from refractory control of physical symptoms (dyspnoea, gastrointestinal, pain, bleeding and agitated delirium) to more psychological distress (panic-stricken fear, severe depression, refractory insomnia and other forms of affective decompensation). Patients' and relatives' requests for sedation in the final phase were significantly more frequent during the period 2000–2002.

Conclusion

Sedation in the terminal or final phase of life plays an increasing role in the management of intractable physical and psychological distress. Ethical concerns are raised by patients' requests and needs on the one hand, and the physicians' self-understanding on the other hand. Hence, ethically acceptable criteria and guidelines for the decision making are needed with special regard to the nature of refractory and intolerable symptoms, patients' informed consent and personal needs, the goals and aims of medical sedation in end-of-life care.

Keywords:
terminal sedation; palliative care; ethics; symptom control; attitudes; advance directives