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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Attitudes towards terminal sedation: an empirical survey among experts in the field of medical ethics

Alfred Simon1*, Magdalene Kar2, José Hinz3 and Dietmar Beck3

  • * Corresponding author: Alfred Simon asimon1@gwdg.de

  • † Equal contributors

Author Affiliations

1 Academy for Ethics in Medicine, Georg-August-University, Goettingen, Germany

2 Department of Medical Ethics and History of Medicine, Georg-August-University, Goettingen, Germany

3 Department of Anaesthesiology, Emergency and Intensive Care Medicine, Georg-August-University, Goettingen, Germany

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BMC Palliative Care 2007, 6:4  doi:10.1186/1472-684X-6-4

Published: 16 April 2007

Abstract

Background

"Terminal sedation" regarded as the use of sedation in (pre-)terminal patients with treatment-refractory symptoms is controversially discussed not only within palliative medicine. While supporters consider terminal sedation as an indispensable palliative medical treatment option, opponents disapprove of it as "slow euthanasia". Against this background, we interviewed medical ethics experts by questionnaire on the term and the moral acceptance of terminal sedation in order to find out how they think about this topic. We were especially interested in whether experts with a professional medical and nursing background think differently about the topic than experts without this background.

Methods

The survey was carried out by questionnaire; beside the provided answering options free text comments were possible. As test persons we chose the 477 members of the German Academy for Ethics in Medicine, an interdisciplinary society for medical ethics.

Results

281 completed questionnaires were returned (response rate = 59%). The majority of persons without medical background regarded "terminal sedation" as an intentional elimination of consciousness until the patient's death occurs; persons with a medical background generally had a broader understanding of the term, including light or intermittent forms of sedation. 98% of the respondents regarded terminal sedation in dying patients with treatment-refractory physical symptoms as acceptable. Situations in which the dying process has not yet started, in which untreatable mental symptoms are the indication for terminal sedation or in which life-sustaining measures are withdrawn during sedation were evaluated as morally difficult.

Conclusion

The survey reveals a great need for research and discussion on the medical indication as well as on the moral evaluation of terminal sedation. Prerequisite for this is a more precise terminology which describes the circumstances of the sedation.