Press Release: Medical and ethical experts say ‘make general anaesthesia more widely available for dying patients’

General anaesthesia is widely used for surgery and diagnostic interventions, to ensure the patient is completely unconscious during these procedures. However, in a paper published in Anaesthesia (a journal of the Association of Anaesthetists) ethics and anaesthesia experts from the University of Oxford say that general anaesthesia should be more widely available for patients at the end of their lives.

Painkilling medications (analgesia) are commonly given to dying patients. But they may not be enough, leading to the use of continuous deep sedation (also known as “palliative” or “terminal” sedation).

“However, for some patients these common interventions are not enough. Other patients may express a clear desire to be completely unconscious as they die,” explains co-author Professor Julian Savulescu, Uehiro Chair of Practical Ethics, University of Oxford, UK. “Some dying patients just want to sleep. Patients have a right to be unconscious if they are dying. We have the medical means to provide this and we should.”

The authors make clear that their proposal is not about assisted dying, currently illegal in the UK. Instead, their focus is on options available to ensure that patients are comfortable at the end of their lives.

Put simply, some patients will want to be certain they are unconscious and unaware as their final moments arrive.

“The desire to be unconscious as a means of eliminating the experience of physical or mental suffering is understandable,” says co-author Jaideep Pandit, Professor of Anaesthesia at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, UK. “Unconsciousness through general anaesthesia offers the highest chance of making sure that the patient is unaware of going through an adverse process.”

He adds that “although general anaesthesia in end-of-life care has been used and described in the UK since 1995, modern multidisciplinary guidelines will be needed before this can be offered more widely. Raising this issue now is important, especially in view of international trends showing increased use of general anaesthesia for dying patients.”

Informed consent will, say the authors, be crucial in helping patients understand implications of general anaesthesia for end-of-life care, and the other options they have to manage their final days.

“It is vital that patients are informed of all the legal options available to them to relieve suffering at the end of life. That includes analgesia, sedation and, potentially now, anaesthesia,” says co-author Professor Dominic Wilkinson, Director of Medical Ethics, Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, UK. “The risks and benefits of each should be explained. Patients should be free to choose the option, or combination of options, that best meet their values.”

In a separate survey of the general public, published recently in the journal PLOS One, Professors Wilkinson and Savulescu found a high level of support for access to deep sedation in dying patients. Some 88% of those surveyed said they would like the option of a general anaesthetic if they were dying. About two thirds (64%) said they would personally choose to have an anaesthetic at the end of life.

Professor Wilkinson adds “members of the general public appear to value the option of deep sleep and complete relief from pain if they were dying. Our previous research indicates that the public believes that patients should be given this choice.”

The authors counter any concerns that the use of general anaesthesia for end-of-life care could hasten death. Studies show no statistically significant difference in mean survival time between patients at the end of life who receive continuous deep sedation and those who do not. In several countries, propofol infusion as used for general anaesthesia has been continued for up to 14 days. “This stresses the point that the purpose of administering anaesthesia is not to hasten death but simply to achieve unconsciousness.” explains co- author Antony Takla, Research Associate at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford.

The authors believe the UK medical community should prepare for increased requests for general anaesthesia for end-of-life care, based on current trends in Western Europe and Scandinavia.

They conclude: “we have described a potential role for general anaesthesia in end-of-life care. This has, in reality, been available to UK patients since the 1990s, but is not commonly discussed or provided. There is a strong ethical case for making this option more widely available. This does not imply that existing palliative care practice is deficient. Indeed, we might see that general anaesthesia in end-of-life care is requested by, or suitable for, very few patients.”

“However, the number of patients involved should not alone determine whether this issue is regarded as ethically important. Even if complete unconsciousness is desired by only a few patients, there is a moral imperative for national anaesthesia, palliative care and nursing organisations to prepare for the possibility that general anaesthesia in end-of-life care may be requested by some patients, and to work collaboratively to develop clear protocols to address all of the practical, ethical and medicolegal issues concerned.”

Published April 21, 2021 | By Julian Savulescu

Further Resources

image of a statue of a family members at deathbed

Press Releases

Medical and ethical experts say ‘make general anaesthesia more widely available for dying patients’ (21 April 2021)

General anaesthesia is widely used for surgery and diagnostic interventions, to ensure the patient is completely unconscious during these procedures. However, in a paper published in Anaesthesia (a journal of the Association of Anaesthetists) ethics and anaesthesia experts from the University of Oxford say that general anaesthesia should be more widely available for patients at the end of their lives.
Press Release: Medical and ethical experts say ‘make general anaesthesia more widely available for dying patients

Majority of UK public want choice at the end of life – survey (24 March 2021)

The latest research from Oxford University’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics breaks new ground. It finds strong support for access to deep sedation in dying patients, with 88% of respondents saying they would want the option of a general anaesthetic if they were dying, while 79% would want the option of euthanasia.

Media

Practical Ethics in the News Blog: General Anaesthesia in End of Life Care – GAEL. Published April 21, 2021 | By Dominic Wilkinson

Practical Ethics in the News Blog: End-of-Life Care: People Should Have the Option of General Anaesthesia as They Die. Published April 27, 2021 | By Dominic Wilkinson and Julian Savulescu

For a collection of older Practical Ethics in the News blogs on this topic, go to our blog website here.

Podcast: 'Sleep softly: Ethics, Schubert and the value of dying well'.  An inter-disciplinary collaboration on music, mortality and ethics including a performance of Schubert’s String Quartet Number 14 (second movement). Dominic Wilkinson (23 May 2018).

LBC Radio (with Nick Ferrari): Dominic Wilkinson discusses whether general anaesthesia should be offered to patients at end-of-life (28 April 2021) [02:35:30 on the clock]

Open Access Publications

Takla, A., Wilkinson, D., Pandit, J. and Savulescu, J., (forthcoming 2021), 'General anaesthesia in end-of-life care: extending the indications for anaesthesia beyond surgery', Anaesthesia, Vol: online 20 April 2021

Summary: In this article, we describe an extension of general anaesthesia – beyond facilitating surgery – to the relief of suffering during dying. Some refractory symptoms at the end of life (pain, delirium, distress, dyspnoea) might be managed by analgesia, but in high doses, adverse effects (e.g. respiratory depression) can hasten death. Sedation may be needed for agitation or distress and can be administered as continuous deep sedation (also referred to as terminal or palliative sedation) generally using benzodiazepines. However, for some patients these interventions are not enough, and others may express a clear desire to be completely unconscious as they die. We summarise the historical background of an established practice that we refer to as ‘general anaesthesia in end‐of‐life care’. We discuss its contexts and some ethical and legal issues that it raises, arguing that these are largely similar issues to those already raised by continuous deep sedation. To be a valid option, general anaesthesia in end‐of‐life care will require a clear multidisciplinary framework and consensus practice guidelines. We see these as an impending development for which the specialty should prepare. General anaesthesia in end‐of‐life care raises an important debate about the possible role of anaesthesia in the relief of suffering beyond the context of surgical/diagnostic interventions.

Takla, A., Wilkinson, D. and Savulescu, J., (forthcoming 2021), 'A conscious choice: is it ethical to aim at unconsciousness at the end of life', Bioethics, Vol: 35(3): 284-291

Abstract: One of the most commonly referenced ethical principles when it comes to the management of dying patients is the doctrine of double effect (DDE). The DDE affirms that it is acceptable to cause side effects (e.g. respiratory depression) as a consequence of symptom‐focused treatment. Much discussion of the ethics of end of life care focuses on the question of whether actions (or omissions) would hasten (or cause) death, and whether that is permissible. However, there is a separate question about the permissibility of hastening or causing unconsciousness in dying patients. Some authors have argued that the DDE would not permit end of life care that directly aims to render the patient unconscious. The claim is that consciousness is an objective human good and therefore doctors should not intentionally (and permanently) suppress it. Three types of end of life care (EOLC) practices will be explored in this article. The first is symptom‐based management (e.g. analgesia); the second is proportional terminal sedation as a means of relieving suffering (also referred to as palliative sedation or continuous deep sedation); and finally, deliberate and rapid sedation to unconsciousness until death (a practice we call terminal anaesthesia in this paper). After examining the common arguments for the various types of symptom‐based management and sedation, we apply the DDE to the latter two types of EOLC practices. We argue that aiming at unconsciousness, contrary to some claims, can be morally good or at least morally neutral in some dying patients.

Takla, A., Savulescu, J., Kappes, A. and Wilkinson, D., (2021), 'British laypeople’s attitudes towards gradual sedation, sedation to unconsciousness and euthanasia at the end of life', PLoS ONE, Vol: 16((3):e0247193) [PMC7997648]

Abstract: Many patients at the end of life require analgesia to relieve pain. Additionally, up to 1/5 of patients in the UK receive sedation for refractory symptoms at the end of life. The use of sedation in end-of-life care (EOLC) remains controversial. While gradual sedation to alleviate intractable suffering is generally accepted, there is more opposition towards deliberate and rapid sedation to unconsciousness (so-called “terminal anaesthesia”, TA). However, the general public’s views about sedation in EOLC are not known. We sought to investigate the general public’s views to inform policy and practice in the UK.

Wilkinson, D., (2021), 'Sleep softly. Schubert, ethics and the value of dying well', Journal of Medical Ethics, Vol: 47(4) [PMC8053338]

Abstract: Ethical discussions about medical treatment for seriously ill babies or children often focus on the ‘value of life’ or on ‘quality of life’ and what that might mean. In this paper, I look at the other side of the coin—on the value of death, and on the quality of dying. In particular, I examine whether there is such a thing as a good way to die, for an infant or an adult, and what that means for medical care. To do that, I call on philosophy and on personal experience. However, I will also make reference to art, poetry and music. That is partly because the topic of mortality has long been reflected on by artists as well as philosophers and ethicists. It is also because, as we will see, there may be some useful parallels to draw.