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Open Access Research article

Nationwide survey to evaluate the decision-making process in euthanasia requests in Belgium: do specifically trained 2nd physicians improve quality of consultation?

Joachim Cohen1*, Yanna Van Wesemael1, Tinne Smets1, Johan Bilsen12, Bregje Onwuteaka-Philipsen3, Wim Distelmans4 and Luc Deliens13

Author Affiliations

1 End-of Life Care Research Group, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) & Ghent University, Brussels, Belgium

2 Department of Public Health, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), Brussels, Belgium

3 VU University Medical Center, Department of Public and Occupational Health, EMGO Institute for Health and Care Research, Expertise Center for Palliative Care, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

4 Universitair Ziekenhuis Brussel, Supportive & Palliative Care, Brussels, Belgium

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BMC Health Services Research 2014, 14:307  doi:10.1186/1472-6963-14-307

Published: 16 July 2014

Abstract

Background

Following the 2002 enactment of the Belgian law on euthanasia, which requires the consultation of an independent second physician before proceeding with euthanasia, the Life End Information Forum (LEIF) was founded which provides specifically trained physicians who can act as mandatory consultants in euthanasia requests. This study assesses quality of consultations in Flanders and Brussels and compares these between LEIF and non-LEIF consultants.

Methods

A questionnaire was sent in 2009 to a random sample of 3,006 physicians in Belgium from specialties likely involved in the care of dying patients. Several questions about the last euthanasia request of one of their patients were asked. As LEIF serves the Flemish speaking community (i.e. region of Flanders and the bilingual Brussels Capital Region) and no similar counterpart is present in Wallonia, analyses were limited to Flemish speaking physicians in Flanders and Brussels.

Results

Response was 34%. Of the 244 physicians who indicated having received a euthanasia request seventy percent consulted a second physician in their last request; in 30% this was with a LEIF physician. Compared to non-LEIF physicians, LEIF physicians were more often not a colleague (69% vs 42%) and not a co-attending physician (89% vs 66%). They tended to more often discuss the request with the attending physician (100% vs 95%) and with the family (76% vs 69%), and also more frequently helped the attending physician with performing euthanasia (44% vs 24%). No significant differences were found in the extent to which they talked to the patient (96% vs 93%) and examined the patient file (94% vs 97%).

Conclusion

In cases of explicit euthanasia requests in Belgium, the consultation procedure of another physician by the attending physician is not optimal and can be improved. Training and putting at disposal consultants through forums such as LEIF seems able to improve this situation. Adding stipulations in the law about the necessary competencies and tasks of consulting physicians may additionally incite improvement. Irrespective of whether euthanasia is a legal practice within a country, similar services may prove useful to also improve quality of consultations in various other difficult end-of-life decision-making situations.

Keywords:
Euthanasia; Consultation; Referral practice; Terminal care