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Miccinesi G. 1, Caraceni A. 2, Raho J. A. 3, Paci E. 1, Bulli F. 1, Van Den Block L. 4, Giannini A. 5
1 Clinical and Descriptive Epidemiology Unit, Cancer Prevention and Research Institute-ISPO, Florence, Italy;
2 Palliative Care Unit (Pain Therapy-Rehabilitation), National Cancer Institute, Milan, Italy;
3 Department of Philosophy, University of Pisa, Pisa, Italy;
4 End-of-Life Care Research Group, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) and Ghent University, Department of Family Medicine and Chronic Care, Brussels, Belgium;
5 Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, Fondazione IRCCS Ca’ Granda, Ospedale Maggiore Policlinico, Milan, Italy
BACKGROUND: Sedative drugs are often used at the end of life for different clinical indications, and sometimes sedation is not interrupted until the patient dies. The aim of this study was to estimate the prevalence of patients who died while deeply sedated in Italy in 2007.
METHODS: Cross-sectional survey which asked physicians about the last death that occurred among their assisted patients during the last year, and about their attitudes towards end-of-life decisions. All general practitioners (N=5,710) and a random sample of hospital physicians (N=8,950) from 14 Italian provinces were invited to participate.
RESULTS: The response rate was 20%. Among 1855 reported deaths, 1466 (79.2%) were classified by physicians as expected or non-sudden; 18.2% of these expected or non-sudden deaths occurred while the patient was deeply sedated. GPs were the least likely to report deep sedation, whereas anesthetists were the most likely. In 8% of cases, sedation occurred along with an abrupt increase in the dosage of opioids during the last day of life, reaching a dosage considered higher than necessary by the doctor. No association with positive attitudes of the physician towards physician assisted death was found, whereas reporting sedation was associated with a positive attitude towards respecting the choice of relatives to forgo life-sustaining treatment in the case of an incompetent patient.
CONCLUSION: Our study confirms the high prevalence of patients in Italy who die while being deeply sedated and shows that different practices may converge under the same label. Careful descriptive language is needed.