Terminal sedation not an argument against assisted dying law reform

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Terminal sedation is not an argument against assisted dying law reform.

Opponents of assisted dying often claim that the appropriate response to refractory symptoms at end of life is terminal sedation — also known as palliative sedation or continuous deep sedation.e.g. 1 Terminal sedation is the administration of sedatives so as to render the patient unconscious until death. Thus, the patient’s active experience of suffering is removed, even if the underlying causes of the suffering are not.

Terminal sedation can help in some cases of end-of-life suffering, but it remains a problematic practice — and not a substitute for lawful assisted dying — for eight broad reasons.

1. Directly and foreseeably causing death

Unless the patient is already likely to die of her illness within a few days, it is the withholding of artificial nutrition and hydration during terminal sedation that causes the patient’s death. Lack of fluids causes circulatory collapse and organ failure within 14 days; less if the patient is frail.

In addition, at least one study has found that the terminal sedation medication itself can cause depression of respiration and/or circulation, directly resulting in death in 3.9% of cases.2 Another study purporting to show no survival difference in patients given terminal sedation3 has been exposed as deeply scientifically flawed.4

While opponents of assisted dying usually claim that the intention of terminal sedation is the relief of symptoms and not the hastening of death (their fundamental objection to assisted dying), in practice, terminal sedation can directly and foreseeably cause death.

2. Inapplicable prior to 2–14 days before death

A standard of practice in terminal sedation in many jurisdictions is that it should be used to address refractory symptoms only if the patient’s death is anticipated within hours or days, and in any case less than 14 days.5

However, intolerable and intractable symptoms often occur much earlier, for example amongst those with metastatic cancer where death is still weeks off, or those with a progressive degenerative neurological condition such as motor neuron disease, who may have several months to live.

Thus, terminal sedation is not a practical solution to intractable symptoms in many cases.

3. It doesn’t always help

Palliative Care Australia’s acknowledgement that even best practice can’t always alleviate intolerable suffering at end of life6 is confirmed by a study into terminal sedation practice which found that, in contrast to popular belief that it alleviates (the patients’ conscious awareness of) all suffering, it was ineffective in 17% of cases.7

4. It may violate the patient’s value system

Most calls for terminal sedation as “the answer” to assisted dying law reform focus on the views of the doctor, for whom this is another familiar “intervention”. However, terminal sedation may be unacceptable to the patient.

A patient may deeply believe that being forced to dehydrate to death — unconscious in a bed for a couple of weeks — to be an anathema to her most deeply-held values and sense of self as an active participant in her own life trajectory. This patient may profoundly prefer another route whose equally caused and foreseeable consequence is death: voluntary assisted dying, an option that gives her the chance to say goodbye to loved ones at a time of her own choosing.

5. It extinguishes the patient’s decisional capacity

Rendering the patient unconscious extinguishes her decision-making capacity. The patient can no longer participate in her own treatment decisions unless terminal sedation is ceased, she regains consciousness and becomes aware of her intolerable suffering once more.

6. Doctors’ intention not always clear-cut

When a doctor administers terminal sedation to a patient, the doctor’s intention is not always clear-cut. The doctor may intend to alleviate the patient’s suffering and/or intend to hasten death.

The administration of a single large bolus of sedatives is generally indicative of an intention to hasten death, in which case the doctor in likely to be investigated and prosecuted. However, the administration of increasing doses of sedatives is less clear: significantly increasing titrations of sedatives may be necessary to alleviate intractable symptoms, or they may be an intention to hasten death.

7. Risk of coercion

There is a conceptual risk that greedy relatives, service providers who need the patient’s bed, and others, might inappropriately persuade the patient to opt for a death hastened by terminal sedation, a similar theoretical risk to that in assisted dying.

However, unlike assisted dying which under statutory law is an express, fully informed, independently examined and documented desire and intention to hasten death, there are no statutory requirements in Australia regarding testing of desire, informedness, intention or possible coercion in terminal sedation. This is incoherent.

8. Worse experiences for the bereaved

Studies have found a significant minority of relatives of patients receiving terminal sedation are quite distressed by the experience. Problems causing distress include concern about the patient’s welfare and terminal sedation’s failure to address symptoms, burden of responsibility for making the decision, feeling unprepared for changes in the patient’s condition, short time to the patient’s death and whether terminal sedation had contributed to it, feeling that healthcare workers were insufficiently compassionate, and wondering if another approach would have been better.e.g. 8,9 Periods of longer terminal sedation may be more distressing than shorter periods.10

In contrast, an Oregon study found that the bereaved from assisted deaths appreciate the opportunity to say goodbye, to know that the choice was the deceased’s wish, that the deceased avoided prolonged suffering, that the choice was legal, and they were able to plan and prepare for the death.11

Another Oregon study found that the mental health outcomes of bereaved from assisted deaths were no different from the bereaved from natural deaths.12 Bereaved from assisted deaths were more likely to believe that the dying person’s wishes had been honoured and were less likely to have regrets about the death.

A Swiss study found the rate of complicated grief after assisted death was comparable to the general Swiss population,13[^] while a Dutch study found bereavement coping in cancer was better after assisted death than after non-assisted death.14

Incoherent professional association standards

Neither the Australian Medical Association nor Palliative Care Australia have guidelines for doctors for the practice of terminal sedation.[*] Indeed, even Palliative Care Australia’s carefully reviewed and updated national standards released in late 2018 don’t mention sedation at all.15

In contrast, in countries where assisted dying is now lawful, clear and specific frameworks have been developed to guide the practice of terminal sedation: in the Netherlands,16 Canada,17 and Belgium.18 This deliberative development and implementation points to continued improvement in (not deterioration of) professional medical practice across the board when assisted dying is legal.

Given the profound issues in terminal sedation as in voluntary assisted dying, the failure of the peak Australian medical associations to publish guidelines on terminal sedation, while opposing assisted dying for perceived issues in its implementation, is incoherent and indefensible.

Summary

Palliative and medical care can never address all profound suffering at the end of life, regardless of funding or organisation: some kinds of suffering have no relevant or effective medical interventions, and even terminal sedation may be inapplicable or ineffective. To claim that palliative care is always the answer is a “monstrous arrogance19 and “represents the last vestiges of [medical] paternalism”.20

 

"It is clear that improving palliative care will not remove the need for legalizing assisted dying, and that legalizing assisted dying need not harm palliative care.”21

 

While terminal (palliative) sedation may help a minority of patients, it's it's a problematic practice that is often not a practical solution to refractory symptoms at end of life.

Terminal sedation is not a substitute for lawful assisted dying choice.


[^]     Slightly elevated levels of PTSD were found amongst the bereaved (compared to the general population), but it was not established whether this would have been different from the trauma of experiencing continued suffering and deterioration or different from PTSD rates of those who had recently lost a loved one by any other means, including terminal sedation.

[*]     Revealed through direct correspondence between myself and the two associations.

 

References

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  9. Bruinsma, SM, Brown, J, van der Heide, A, Deliens, L, Anquinet, L, Payne, SA, Seymour, JE, Rietjens, JAC & on behalf of, U 2014, 'Making sense of continuous sedation in end-of-life care for cancer patients: an interview study with bereaved relatives in three European countries', Supportive Care in Cancer, 22(12), pp. 3243-3252.
  10. van Dooren, S, van Veluw, HT, van Zuylen, L, Rietjens, JA, Passchier, J & van der Rijt, CC 2009, 'Exploration of concerns of relatives during continuous palliative sedation of their family members with cancer', J Pain Symptom Manage, 38(3), pp. 452-459.
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  13. Wagner, B, Müller, J & Maercker, A 2012, 'Death by request in Switzerland: Posttraumatic stress disorder and complicated grief after witnessing assisted suicide', European Psychiatry, 27(7), pp. 542-546.
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  15. Palliative Care Australia 2018, National Palliative Care Standards, Griffith ACT, pp. 44.
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