Discussions on ethical aspects of life-and-death decisions within the hospital are often made in plenary. The prehospital physician, however, may be faced with ethical dilemmas in life-and-death decisions when time-critical decisions to initiate or refrain from resuscitative efforts need to be taken without the possibility to discuss matters with colleagues. Little is known whether these considerations regarding ethical issues in crucial life-and-death decisions are documented prehospitally. This is a review of the ethical considerations documented in the prehospital medical records of patients in a Danish prehospital setting for whom the decision to resuscitate or not was made at the scene.
The study is based on discharge summaries of all patients subjected to crucial life-and-death decisions by the Mobile Emergency Care Unit in Odense in the years 2010 to 2014. The medical records with possible documentation of ethical issues were independently reviewed by two philosophers in order to identify explicit ethical or philosophical considerations pertaining to the decision to resuscitate or not.
In total, 1275 patients were either declared dead at the scene without exhibiting layman’s reliable signs of death or admitted to hospital following resuscitation.
In a total of 62 patients, 85 specific ethical issues related to resuscitation were documented. The expressions of the ethical considerations were generally vague or unclear and almost exclusively concerned the interests of the patient and not the relatives. In the vast majority of cases where an ethical content was identified, the ethical considerations led to a decision to terminate treatment.
A strengthened practice of documenting ethical considerations in prehospital life-and-death decision-making in the patient’s medical records is required. We suggest that a template be implemented in the prehospital medical records describing the basis for any ethical decisions. This template should contain information regarding the persons involved in the deliberations and notes on ethical considerations. The documentation should include considerations concerning the patient’s end-of-life wishes, the estimations of the quality of life before and after the incident, and a summary of other ethical concerns taken into account, such as the integrity of the patient and frame of mind of relatives.