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Responding to Intractable Terminal Suffering: The Role of Terminal Sedation and Voluntary Refusal of Food and Fluids

Timothy E. Quill, MD; Ira R. Byock, MD, ACP-ASIM End-of-Life Care Consensus Panel
[+] Article and Author Information

This paper was written by Timothy E. Quill, MD, and Ira R. Byock, MD, for the American College of Physicians-American Society of Internal Medicine (ACP-ASIM) End-of-Life Care Consensus Panel. Members of the ACP-ASIM End-of-Life Care Consensus Panel were Bernard Lo, MD (Chair); Janet Abrahm, MD; Susan Block, MD; William Breitbart, MD; Ira R. Byock, MD; Kathy Faber-Langendoen, MD; Lloyd W. Kitchens Jr., MD; Paul Lanken, MD; Joanne Lynn, MD; Diane Meier, MD; Timothy E. Quill, MD; George Thibault, MD; and James Tulsky, MD. Primary staff to the Panel were Lois Snyder, JD (Project Director), and Jason Karlawish, MD. This paper was reviewed and approved by the Ethics and Human Rights Committee, although it does not represent official ACP-ASIM policy. Members of the Ethics and Human Rights Committee were Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD (Chair); Joanne Lynn, MD; Richard J. Carroll, MD; David A. Fleming, MD; Steven H. Miles, MD; Gail J. Povar, MD; James A. Tulsky, MD; Alan L. Gordon, MD; S.Y. Tan, MD, JD; Vincent Herrin, MD; and Lee J. Dunn Jr., JD, LLM.

Grant Support: The Greenwall Foundation provided support to the End-of-Life Care panel.

Requests for Single Reprints: Lois Snyder, JD, Center for Ethics and Professionalism, American College of Physicians-American Society of Internal Medicine, 190 N. Independence Mall West, Philadelphia, PA 19106; e-mail, lsnyder@mail.acponline.org.

Requests To Purchase Bulk Reprints (minimum, 100 copies): Reprints Coordinator; phone, 215-351-2657; e-mail, reprints@mail.acponline.org.

Current Author Addresses: Dr. Quill: Department of Medicine, The Genesee Hospital, 224 Alexander Street, Rochester, NY 14607.

Dr. Byock: The Palliative Care Service, 341 University Avenue, Missoula, MT 59801.


Ann Intern Med. 2000;132(5):408-414. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-132-5-200003070-00012
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When provided by a skilled, multidisciplinary team, palliative care is highly effective at addressing the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual needs of dying patients and their families. However, some patients who have witnessed harsh death want reassurance that they can escape if their suffering becomes intolerable. In addition, a small percentage of terminally ill patients receiving comprehensive care reach a point at which their suffering becomes severe and unacceptable despite unrestrained palliative efforts; some of these patients request that death be hastened. This paper presents terminal sedation and voluntary refusal of hydration and nutrition as potential last resorts that can be used to address the needs of such patients. These two practices allow clinicians to address a much wider range of intractable end-of-life suffering than physician-assisted suicide (even if it were legal) and can also provide alternatives for patients, families, and clinicians who are morally opposed to physician-assisted suicide. This paper will define the two practices, distinguish them from more standard palliative care interventions and from physician-assisted suicide, illustrate them with a real clinical scenario, provide potential guidelines and practicalities, and explore their moral and legal status. Although medicine cannot sanitize dying or provide perfect answers for all challenging end-of-life clinical problems, terminal sedation and voluntary refusal of hydration and nutrition substantially increase patients' choices at this inherently challenging time.

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