Involvement of palliative care in euthanasia practice in a context of legalized euthanasia: A population-based mortality follow-back study

Sigrid Dierickx, Luc Deliens, Joachim Cohen, Kenneth Chambaere

Palliative Medicine
Palliative Medicine

: In the international debate about assisted dying, it is commonly stated that euthanasia is incompatible with palliative care. In Belgium, where euthanasia was legalized in 2002, the Federation for Palliative Care Flanders has endorsed the viewpoint that euthanasia can be embedded in palliative care.

Aim: To examine the involvement of palliative care services in euthanasia practice in a context of legalized euthanasia.

Design: Population-based mortality follow-back survey.

Setting/participants: Physicians attending a random sample of 6871 deaths in Flanders, Belgium, in 2013.

Results: People requesting euthanasia were more likely to have received palliative care (70.9%) than other people dying non-suddenly (45.2%) (odds ratio = 2.1 (95% confidence interval, 1.5–2.9)). The most frequently indicated reasons for non-referral to a palliative care service in those requesting euthanasia were that existing care already sufficiently addressed the patient’s palliative and supportive care needs (56.5%) and that the patient did not want to be referred (26.1%). The likelihood of a request being granted did not differ between cases with or without palliative care involvement. Palliative care professionals were involved in the decision-making process and/or performance of euthanasia in 59.8% of all euthanasia deaths; this involvement was higher in hospitals (76.0%) than at home (47.0%) or in nursing homes (49.5%).

Conclusion: In Flanders, in a context of legalized euthanasia, euthanasia and palliative care do not seem to be contradictory practices. A substantial proportion of people who make a euthanasia request are seen by palliative care services, and for a majority of these, the request is granted.

Dierickx S, Deliens L, Cohen J, Chambaere K. Involvement of palliative care in euthanasia practice in a context of legalized euthanasia: A population-based mortality follow-back study. Palliat Med. 2018 Jan;32(1):114-122. doi: 10.1177/0269216317727158. Epub 2017 Aug 29.

Recent Trends in Euthanasia and Other End-of-Life Practices in Belgium

Kenneth Chambaere, Robert Vander Stichele, Freddy Mortier, Joachim Cohen, Luc Deliens

New England Journal of Medicine, NEJM
New England Journal of Medicine

We found an increased demand for euthanasia in Belgium between 2007 and 2013, as well as growing willingness among physicians to meet those requests, mostly after the involvement of palliative care services. This finding indicates that, after 11 years of experience, euthanasia is increasingly considered as a valid option at the end of life in Belgium.

Chambaere K, Stichele RV, Mortier F, Cohen J, Deliens L. Recent Trends in Euthanasia and Other End-of-Life Practices in Belgium. N Engl J Med. 2015 Mar 19;372(12):1179-1181.

Forgoing artificial nutrition or hydration at the end of life: a large cross-sectional survey in Belgium

Kenneth Chambaere, Ilse Loodts, Luc Deliens, Joachim Cohen

Journal of Medical Ethics
Journal of Medical Ethics

OBJECTIVES: To examine the frequency and characteristics of decisions to forgo artificial nutrition and/or hydration (ANH) at the end of life. DESIGN: Postal questionnaire survey regarding end-of-life decisions (including ANH) to physicians certifying a large representative sample (n=6927) of Belgian death certificates in 2007.

SETTING: Flanders, Belgium, 2007.

PARTICIPANTS: Treating physicians of deceased patients.

RESULTS: Response rate was 58.4%. A decision to forgo ANH occurred in 6.6% of all deaths (4.2% withheld,3.0% withdrawn). Being female, dying in a care home or hospital and suffering from nervous system diseases(including dementia) or malignancies were the most important patient-related factors positively associated with a decision to forgo ANH. Physicians indicated that the decision to forgo ANH had had some life-shortening effects in 77% of cases. There had been no consultation with the patient in 81%, mostly due to incapacity (coma or dementia). The family, colleague physicians and nurses were involved in decision making in 76%,41% and 62%, respectively.

CONCLUSIONS: A substantial number of deaths are preceded by a decision to forgo ANH in Belgium. These decisions, ethically laden and involving a considerable chance of life shortening, are mostly not preceded by discussion with the patient despite existing patient rights legislation. It is recommended that physicians and patients and their families alike dedicate ample time to the discussion of treatment options and communication about the possibility of forgoing ANH and that this discussion takes place earlier as part of overall end-of life care planning rather than at the very end of life..

Chambaere K, Loodts I, Deliens L, Cohen J. Forgoing artificial nutrition or hydration at the end of life: a large cross-sectional survey in Belgium. J Med Ethics. 2014 Jul;40(7):501-4.

Process and Outcomes of Euthanasia Requests Under the Belgian Act on Euthanasia: A Nationwide Survey

Yanna Van Wesemael, Joachim Cohen, Johan Bilsen, Tinne Smets, Bregje D Onwuteaka-Philipsen, Luc Deliens

Journal of Paint and Symptom Management
Journal of Paint and Symptom Management

Context: Since 2002, the administration of a lethal drug by a physician at the explicit request of the patient has been legal in Belgium. The incidence of euthanasia in Belgium has been studied, but the process and outcomes of euthanasia requests have not been investigated.

Objectives: To describe which euthanasia requests were granted, withdrawn, and rejected since the enactment of the euthanasia law in terms of the characteristics of the patient, treating physician, and aspects of the consultation with a second physician.

Methods: A representative sample of 3006 Belgian physicians received a questionnaire investigating their most recent euthanasia request.

Results: The response rate was 34%. Since 2002, 39% of respondents had received a euthanasia request. Forty-eight percent of requests had been carried out, 5% had been refused, 10% had been withdrawn, and in 23%, the patient had died before euthanasia could be performed. Physicians’ characteristics associated with receiving a request were not being religious, caring for a high number of terminally ill patients, and having experience in palliative care. Patient characteristics associated with granting a request were age, having cancer, loss of dignity, having no depression, and suffering without prospect of improvement as a reason for requesting euthanasia. A positive initial position toward the request from the attending physician and positive advice from the second physician also contributed to having a request granted.

Conclusion: Under the Belgian Act on Euthanasia, about half of the requests are granted. Factors related to the reason for the request, position of the attending physician toward the request, and advice from the second physician influence whether a request is granted or not.

Wesemael YV, Cohen J, Bilsen J, Smets T, Onwuteaka-Philipsen BD, Deliens L. Process and outcomes of Euthanasia Requests Under the Belgian Act on Euthanasia: A Nationwide Survey. J Pain Symptom Manage. 2011 May 16;42(5):721-733.

Physician-assisted deaths under the euthanasia law in Belgium: A population-based survey

Kenneth Chambaere, Johan Bilsen, Joachim Cohen, Bregje D Onwuteaka-Philipsen, Freddy Mortier, Luc Deliens

Canadian Medical Association Journal, CMAJ
Canadian Medical Association Journal

Background: Legalization of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide has been heavily debated in many countries. To help inform this debate, we describe the practices of euthanasia and assisted suicide, and the use of life-ending drugs without an explicit request from the patient, in Flanders, Belgium, where euthanasia is legal.

Methods: We mailed a questionnaire regarding the use of life-ending drugs with or without explicit patient request to physicians who certified a representative sample (n = 6927) of death certificates of patients who died in Flanders between June and November 2007.

Results: The response rate was 58.4%. Overall, 208 deaths involving the use of life-ending drugs were reported: 142 (weighted prevalence 2.0%) were with an explicit patient request (euthanasia or assisted suicide) and 66 (weighted prevalence 1.8%) were without an explicit request. Euthanasia and assisted suicide mostly involved patients less than 80 years of age, those with cancer and those dying at home. Use of life-ending drugs without an explicit request mostly involved patients 80 years of older, those with a disease other than cancer and those in hospital. Of the deaths without an explicit request, the decision was not discussed with the patient in 77.9% of cases. Compared with assisted deaths with the patient’s explicit re quest, those without an explicit request were more likely to have a shorter length of treatment of the terminal illness, to have cure as a goal of treatment in the last week, to have a shorter estimated time by which life was shortened and to involve the administration of opioids.

Interpretation: Physician-assisted deaths with an explicit patient request (euthanasia and assisted suicide) and without an explicit request occurred in different patient groups and under different circumstances. Cases without an explicit request often involved patients whose diseases had unpredictable end-of-life trajectories. Although opioids were used in most of these cases, misconceptions seem to persist about their actual life-shortening effects.

Chambaere K, Bilsen J, Cohen J, Onwuteaka-Philipsen BD, Mortier F, Deliens L. Physician-assisted deaths under the euthanasia law in Belgium: A population-based survey. Can Med Assoc J. 2010 Jun 15;182(9):895-901.

Legal Euthanasia in Belgium: Characteristics of All Reported Euthanasia Cases

Tinne Smets, Johan Bilsen, Joachim Cohen, Mette L Rurup, Luc Deliens

Medical Care
Medical Care

To study the reported medical practice of euthanasia in Belgium since implementation of the euthanasia law. . .

Research Design: Analysis of the anonymous database of all euthanasia cases reported to the Federal Control and Evaluation Committee Euthanasia.

Subjects: All euthanasia cases reported by physicians for review between implementation of the euthanasia law on September 22nd, 2002 and December 31, 2007 (n = 1917).

Measures: Frequency of reported euthanasia cases, characteristics of patients and the decision for euthanasia, drugs used in euthanasia cases, and trends in reported cases over time.

Results: The number of reported euthanasia cases increased every year from 0.23% of all deaths in 2002 to 0.49% in 2007. Compared with all deaths in the population, patients who died by euthanasia were more often younger (82.1% of patients who received euthanasia compared with 49.8% of all deaths were younger than 80, P < 0.001), men (52.7% vs. 49.5%, P = 0.005), cancer patients (82.5% vs. 23.5%, P < 0.001), and more often died at home (42.2% vs. 22.4%, P < 0.001). Euthanasia was most often performed with a barbiturate, sometimes in combination with neuromuscular relaxants (92.4%) and seldom with morphine (0.9%). In almost all patients, unbearable physical (95.6%) and/or psychological suffering (68%) were reported. A small minority of cases (6.6%) concerned nonterminal patients, mainly suffering from neuromuscular diseases.

Conclusions: The frequency of reported euthanasia cases has increased every year since legalization. Euthanasia is most often chosen as a last resort at the end of life by younger patients, patients with cancer, and seldom by nonterminal patients.

Smets T, Bilsen J, Cohen J, Rurup ML, Deliens L. Legal Euthanasia in Belgium: Characteristics of All Reported Euthanasia Cases. Med Care. 2010 Feb;47(12).