Attitudes of medical students, housestaff, and faculty physicians toward euthanasia and termination of life-sustaining treatment

P. V. Caralis, J. S. Hammond

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

92 Scopus citations

Abstract

Objectives: Medical decisions concerning the prolongation of life, the right to die, and euthanasia are among the most extensively discussed decisions within medicine and law today. The responses of 360 physicians, housestaff, and medical students to a questionnaire were analyzed to identify attitudes toward these issues. Design: Case vignettes were utilized to simulate the clinical context within which to survey decisions regarding whether or not to allow and assist patients requesting to die. Measurements and Main Results: The majority of respondents (76%) consider withholding and withdrawing life-support therapy consistent with passive euthanasia. Passive euthanasia is more acceptable to the majority of the respondents (77%) and all three groups (physicians, housestaff, and students) are similarly more disturbed by active euthanasia. Of all respondents, 51% would accede to the patient's wishes when lifesaving treatment is refused, but only 16% would do so when a patient requested assistance in dying. Despite the fact that a majority (68%) agree that there is a moral justification for assisting patients to die and feel 'understanding' for a physician who assists a patient in dying, only 6% of those persons surveyed were willing to deliberately terminate the life of a patient by administering medication to cause respiratory arrest, and only 1.1% of those persons surveyed were willing to do so to cause cardiac arrest. In the case vignettes, the faculty placed their highest value on disease-based information as strongly determinative to their decisions, while students and housestaff preferred quality-of-life factors. Respondents uniformly found it easier to perform 'passive' actions; they were more willing to perform 'active' actions in case vignettes where patients had terminal illnesses. Conclusions: Socially and legally created 'shades of gray' have blurred the distinctions between withholding or withdrawing therapies and euthanasia and have left physicians without guidelines. Health ethics education should focus on case-based teaching and on reducing the uncertainty at the bedside.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)683-690
Number of pages8
JournalCritical care medicine
Volume20
Issue number5
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 1 1992

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Keywords

  • acquired immunodeficiency syndrome
  • advance directives
  • critical care
  • ethics
  • euthanasia
  • life-support therapy
  • physician-patient relations
  • resuscitation orders
  • right to die
  • terminal illness

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Critical Care and Intensive Care Medicine

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