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This study aims to provide an in-depth understanding of the content and process of decision-making about palliative sedation for existential suffering (PS-ES) as perceived by Belgian palliative care physicians.
This Belgian nationwide qualitative study follows a grounded theory approach. We conducted semistructured interviews with 25 palliative care physicians working in 19 Belgian hospital-based palliative care units and 4 stand-alone hospices. We analyzed the data using the Qualitative Analysis Guide of Leuven, and we followed the Consolidated Criteria for Reporting Qualitative Research Guidelines (COREQ).
Analysis of the data identified several criteria that physicians apply in their decision-making about PS-ES, namely, the importance of the patient’s demand, PS-ES as a last resort option after all alternatives have been applied, the condition of unbearable suffering combined with other kinds of suffering, and the condition of being in a terminal stage. Regarding the process of decision-making itself, physicians refer to the need for multidisciplinary perspectives supported by an interpretative dialogue with the patient and all other stakeholders. The decision-making process involves a specific temporality and physicians’ inner conviction about the need of PS-ES.
Significance of results
Belgian palliative care physicians are not sure about the criteria regarding decision-making in PS-ES. To deal with complex existential suffering in end-of-life situations, they stress the importance of participation by all stakeholders (patient, relatives, palliative care team, other physicians, nurses, social workers, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, chaplains, etc.) in the decision-making process to prevent inadequate decisions being made.
Irremediability is a key requirement for euthanasia and assisted suicide for psychiatric disorders (psychiatric EAS). Countries like the Netherlands and Belgium ask clinicians to assess irremediability in light of the patient's diagnosis and prognosis and ‘according to current medical understanding’. Clarifying the relevance of a default objective standard for irremediability when applied to psychiatric EAS is crucial for solid policymaking. Yet so far, a thorough examination of this standard is lacking.
Using treatment-resistant depression (TRD) as a test case, through a scoping review in PubMed, we analyzed the state-of-the-art evidence for whether clinicians can accurately predict individual long-term outcome and single out irremediable cases, by examining the following questions: (1) What is the definition of TRD; (2) What are group-level long-term outcomes of TRD; and (3) Can clinicians make accurate individual outcome predictions in TRD?
A uniform definition of TRD is lacking, with over 150 existing definitions, mostly focused on psychopharmacological research. Available yet limited studies about long-term outcomes indicate that a majority of patients with long-term TRD show significant improvement over time. Finally, evidence about individual predictions in TRD using precision medicine is growing, but methodological shortcomings and varying predictive accuracies pose important challenges for its implementation in clinical practice.
Our findings support the claim that, as per available evidence, clinicians cannot accurately predict long-term chances of recovery in a particular patient with TRD. This means that the objective standard for irremediability cannot be met, with implications for policy and practice of psychiatric EAS.
Most people in contemporary western societies do not die suddenly, but from organ failure or dementia after a period with declining health due to chronic-progressive disease. With increasing options for care and treatment, decisions about useful or desirable treatment and care are made in the last phase of life of most people. In this chapter, we report on three categories of end-of-life decisions that are made in dementia care. First, decisions primarily aimed at alleviating pain and other symptoms or improving quality of life in other ways, while possible effects on length of life are deemed irrelevant compared to that aim. Second, decisions around life-sustaining treatments or treatments to cure acute or co-morbid conditions which may or may not affect length and quality of life. Examples of such treatments are cardiopulmonary resuscitation, use of antibiotics, and artificial nutrition and hydration. Third, decisions around terminating life, e.g. euthanasia. For all these decisions, we focus on clinical as well as on some societal and ethical perspectives.
The preponderance of women among persons who request and receive euthanasia and assisted suicide based on a psychiatric condition, as shown by data from The Netherlands and Belgium, is virtually unexplored. We provide a critical discussion of this gender gap, and propose that it can inform a key debate point in the controversy over the practice, namely its conflict with suicide prevention.
Euthanasia and assisted suicide (EAS) based on a psychiatric disorder (psychiatric EAS) continue to pose ethical and policy challenges, even in countries where the practice has been allowed for years. We conducted a systematic review of reasons, a specific type of review for bioethical questions designed to inform rational policy-making. Our aims were twofold: (1) to systematically identify all published reasons for and against the practice (2) to identify current gaps in the debate and areas for future research.
Following the PRISMA guidelines, we performed a search across seven electronic databases to include publications focusing on psychiatric EAS and providing ethical reasons. Reasons were grouped into domains by qualitative content analysis.
We included 42 articles, most of which were written after 2013. Articles in favor and against were evenly distributed. Articles in favor were mostly full-length pieces written by non-clinicians, with articles against mostly reactive, commentary-type pieces written by clinicians. Reasons were categorized into eight domains: (1) mental and physical illness and suffering (2) decisional capacity (3) irremediability (4) goals of medicine and psychiatry (5) consequences for mental health care (6) psychiatric EAS and suicide (7) self-determination and authenticity (8) psychiatric EAS and refusal of life-sustaining treatment. Parity- (or discrimination-) based reasons were dominant across domains, mostly argued for by non-clinicians, while policy reasons were mostly pointed to by clinicians.
The ethical debate about psychiatric EAS is relatively young, with prominent reasons of parity. More direct engagement is needed to address ethical and policy considerations.