Physicians' Psychosocial Barriers to Different Modes of Withdrawal of Life Support in Critical Care: A Qualitative Study in Japan
Social Science & Medicine 2010 February; 70(4): 616-622
Despite a number of guidelines issued in Anglo-American countries over the past few decades for forgoing treatment stating that there is no ethically relevant difference between withholding and withdrawing life-sustaining treatments (LST), it is recognized that many healthcare professionals in Japan as well as some of their western counterparts do not agree with this statement. This research was conducted to investigate the barriers that prevent physicians from withdrawing specific LST in critical care settings, focusing mainly on the modes of withdrawal of LST, in what the authors believe was the first study of its kind anywhere in the world. In 2006-2007, in-depth, face-to-face, semistructured interviews were conducted with 35 physicians working at emergency and critical care facilities across Japan. We elicited their experiences, attitudes, and perceptions regarding withdrawal of mechanical ventilation and other LST. The process of data analysis followed the grounded theory approach. We found that the psychosocial resistance of physicians to withdrawal of artificial devices varied according to the modes of withdrawal, showing a strong resistance to withdrawal of mechanical ventilation that requires physicians to halt the treatment when continuation of its mechanical operation is possible. However, there was little resistance to the withdrawal of percutaneous cardiopulmonary support and artificial liver support when their continuation was mechanically or physiologically impossible. The physicians shared a desire for a "soft landing" of the patient, that is, a slow and gradual death without drastic and immediate changes, which serves the psychosocial needs of the people surrounding the patient. For that purpose, vasopressors were often withheld and withdrawn. The findings suggest what the Japanese physicians avoid is not what they call a life-shortening act but an act that would not lead to a soft landing, or a slow death that looks 'natural' in the eyes of those surrounding the patient. The purpose of constructing such a final scene is believed to fulfill the psychosocial needs of the patient's family and the physicians, who emphasize on how death feels to those surrounding the patient. Unless withdrawing LST would lead to a soft landing, Japanese clinicians, who recognize that the results of withdrawing LST affect not only the patient but those around the patient, are likely to feel that there is an ethically relevant difference between withholding and withdrawing LST.
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