Treatment decision-making at the end of life: a survey of Australian doctors' attitudes toward patients' wishes and euthanasia

Charles Waddell, Roger M Clarnette, Michael Smithy, Lynn Oldham, Allan Kellehear

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Objective
To examine factors that influence medical practitioners' treatment decisions for patients with life-threatening or terminal illnesses.

Design
Postal survey, conducted between September and November 1995, of a self-administered questionnaire, describing four clinical case scenarios, to a random sample of 2172 Australian doctors in all States and Territories. Respondents were asked to prescribe treatment for the patients described in the scenarios. Patients' characteristics varied in terms of mental competence, illness severity, prognosis, the presence of advance directives, request for assisted death, and sociodemographic factors. The respondents' sociodemographic and medical training characteristics were also obtained.

Setting
Random national sample of all active medical practitioners.

Participants
Hospital trainees, general practitioners, physicians, palliative care practitioners and surgeons were surveyed. A response rate of 73% was achieved.

Main outcome measures
Frequency of prescription of supportive, acute or intensive treatment for patients in the four clinical scenarios based on respondents' sex, religion, medical training and country of medical degree.

Results
Three main findings were: (i) doctors did not make consistent decisions, but their decisions varied systematically by sociodemographic and medical training factors; (ii) doctors generally adhered to patient and family wishes when these were known; (iii) doctors did not generally adhere to a patient's request for assisted death.

Conclusion
Treatment provided is significantly determined by the individual characteristics of the doctor and not solely by the nature of the medical problem. Participation in the informed-consent process and in the preparation of advance health care directives would enable practitioners to be familiar with patient and family wishes and could reduce variations of treatment related to sociodemographic and medical training factors. Stronger empirical data on the way that treatment decisions are made could provide the basis for an informed euthanasia policy.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)540-544
Number of pages15
JournalMedical Journal of Australia
Volume165
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 1996
Externally publishedYes

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