Bioethics Blogs

Nonconsensual withdrawal of nutrition and hydration in prolonged disorders of consciousness: authoritarianism and trustworthiness in medicine

The Royal College of Physicians of London published the 2013 national clinical guidelines on prolonged disorders of consciousness (PDOC) in vegetative and minimally conscious states. The guidelines acknowledge the rapidly advancing neuroscientific research and evolving therapeutic modalities in PDOC. However, the guidelines state that end-of-life decisions should be made for patients who do not improve with neurorehabilitation within a finite period, and they recommend withdrawal of clinically assisted nutrition and hydration (CANH). This withdrawal is deemed necessary because patients in PDOC can survive for years with continuation of CANH, even when a ceiling on medical care has been imposed, i.e., withholding new treatment such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation for acute life-threatening illness. The end-of-life care pathway is centered on a staged escalation of medications, including sedatives, opioids, barbiturates, and general anesthesia, concurrent with withdrawal of CANH. Agitation and distress may last from several days to weeks because of the slow dying process from starvation and dehydration. The potential problems of this end-of-life care pathway are similar to those of the Liverpool Care Pathway. After an independent review in 2013, the Department of Health discontinued the Liverpool Care pathway in England. The guidelines assert that clinicians, supported by court decisions, have become the final authority in nonconsensual withdrawal of CANH on the basis of “best interests” rationale. We posit that these guidelines lack high-quality evidence supporting: 1) treatment futility of CANH, 2) reliability of distress assessment from starvation and dehydration, 3) efficacy of pharmacologic control of this distress, and 4) proximate causation of death. Finally, we express concerns about the utilitarian-based assessment of what constitutes a person’s best interests.

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