End-of-life care: when CPR is wrong

Pursuing treatment a person has declined represents questionable ethical practice

CPR is the appropriate response when someone has a cardiac arrest, but it has no role in the patient who slips away naturally at the end of a long illness.

CPR is the appropriate response when someone has a cardiac arrest, but it has no role in the patient who slips away naturally at the end of a long illness.

 

The modern intensive care unit offers a wide range of life support mechanisms so that even the sickest person with multi-organ failure can be kept alive. Parallel to this, the media, and television in particular, has removed any veil of secrecy that may have existed about emergency and intensive care medicine. But it may also have raised expectations to an unreasonable level, with evidence to show that the public perception of the role of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is not a realistic one.

The inappropriate use of CPR in certain end-of-life situations has been highlighted recently in medical literature. CPR is the appropriate response when someone has a cardiac arrest. However it has no role in the patient who slips away naturally at the end of a long illness. Senior clinicians have expressed concern that doctors who are called at the time of death feel they have no authority to withhold CPR, or they fear the legal risks of doing so – even where CPR is clearly pointless. As a result, patients with terminal cancer or end stage dementia are being vigorously resuscitated rather than allowed to die naturally.

However, this newspaper has uncovered another questionable aspect of end-of-life care. Responding to recent column, readers have described how patients who had clearly and formally indicated they did not wish to be resuscitated were in fact given CPR. In most cases, the treatment failed, but relatives are being traumatised – firstly by having their concerns pushed aside and then seeing their loved one’s body bruised and broken as a result of vigorous CPR.

In some cases this is happening despite having properly drawn-up advanced care directives present in the patient’s chart. In addition, many charts have DNACPR (do not attempt CPR) stickers prominently displayed on their front covers.

Whatever about the legality of ignoring a patient’s wishes in this way, pursuing treatment the person has declined represents questionable ethical professional practice. Healthcare regulators must take steps to address this breach of trust as a matter of urgency.

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