Palliative sedation refers to the lowing of patient consciousness using medications for the purpose of limiting patient awareness of suffering that is intractable and intolerable.
In releasing its position statement and commentary on the "Use of Palliative Sedation in Imminently Dying Terminally Ill Patients," NHPCO seeks to:
1. clarify the position of NHPCO on the use of palliative sedation for patients at the end of life,
2. recommend questions and issues to be addressed when palliative sedation is being considered, and
3. assist health care organizations in the development of policies for the use of palliative sedation.
Approved by the NHPCO board of directors in December 2009, the statement and commentary appears in the May 2010 issue of The Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, and is now publicly available.
The position statement consists of six core tenets:
For the small number of imminently dying patients whose suffering is intolerable and refractory, NHPCO supports making the option of palliative sedation, delivered by highly trained healthcare professionals acting as an interdisciplinary team, available to patients.
Since the goal is symptom relief (and not unconsciousness per se), sedation should be titrated to reduce consciousness to the minimum level necessary to render symptoms tolerable. For most patients this will mean less than total unconsciousness, allowing the patient to rest comfortably, but to be aroused.
There must be a physician with expertise in palliative care leading the intervention. Patients suffering at the end of life will receive optimal benefit from the involvement of a highly-skilled interdisciplinary team. NHPCO recommends convening an interdisciplinary conference specifically about the use of palliative sedation for each patient with whom it is being considered. In all cases, care must be patient- and family-centered. If the needs of the patient and family differ, the primary focus is on the needs of the patient.
Professionals involved in the process of providing palliative sedation must have training and competence in this particular intervention. Providers should be engaged in ongoing education that addresses symptom assessment and management. Further, facility with integration of the ethical considerations related to use of palliative sedation is essential.
Concerning Existential Suffering
Suffering can occur even when physical symptoms are well controlled. As with any other type of suffering, NHPCO believes that hospice and palliative care professionals have an ethical obligation to respond to existential suffering using the knowledge, tools, and expertise of the interdisciplinary team. It should be noted that the lack of concurrence by the NHPCO ethics committee on the definition and assessment of existential suffering precludes a recommendation regarding the use of palliative sedation for existential suffering. NHPCO strongly urges providers to carefully consider this question and supports further ethical discussion.
Relationship to Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide
Properly administered, palliative sedation of patients who are imminently dying is not the proximate cause of patient death, nor is death a means to achieve symptom relief in palliative sedation. As such, palliative sedation is categorically distinct from euthanasia and assisted suicide.
This statement addresses the use of palliative sedation only for patients who are terminally ill and whose death is imminent.
"This document provides valuable guidance about a complex issue that—while not frequently used—is often misunderstood," said J. Donald Schumacher, NHPCO president and CEO. "Our intention is to address the ethical issues surrounding palliative sedation and help hospice and palliative care providers create policies and guidelines to ensure they are well-prepared concerning this treatment option."
"We are not calling for an increase in the practice of palliative sedation but want to take a major step forward to redress some of the common misconceptions," added Schumacher.
Developed by the Palliative Sedation Task Force of the NHPCO Ethics Committee, members of the task force wanted to indentify and analyze the most robust evidence and arguments about palliative sedation and summarize that material in a way that would be helpful to the NHPCO membership.
Timothy W. Kirk, who led the task force commented, "We want to stress in this document that palliative sedation, like all interventions in palliative care, needs to be part of evidence-based practice. There are evidence-based clinical protocols based on a growing body of research that many clinicians are not aware of, but should be. Simply turning up current pain medications is not evidence-based sedation. We have a moral obligation to give our patients the best care possible, and this document is intended to help providers reflect on the nature of that obligation when it comes to the practice of palliative sedation."
The complete statement and commentary, as it appears in JPSM, is available at the NHPCO website (go to nhpco.org/newsroom and click on the link for NHPCO Ethical Statements and Position Statements).