The use of palliative sedation for psychosocial and existential symptoms can be particularly controversial. The clinician may face many ethical and clinical questions—questions that are more easily resolved in the case of palliative sedation for pain and physical symptoms than for depression and psychosocial symptoms.
For example, the ethical basis for the use of terminal sedation (double effect) is less clearly applicable in the case of psychiatric symptoms. Under the principle of double effect, the intended effect (relieving psychological suffering) would be considered allowable as long as any risks or negative effects (i.e., shortened survival) are unintended by the health care professional. The difficulty arises because the principle only discusses the professional’s intention, when it is the patient’s intention that can be unclear and potentially problematic. Is the depressed patient who no longer wants to suffer depressive symptoms asking only for that relief, or does the patient also intend to ask the professional to shorten his or her life? A clinician who feels uncomfortable in such situations may wish to seek guidance from his or her ethics committee.
Other difficult questions can arise from the potentially negative value that is culturally assigned to detaching oneself, or “zoning out,” as a lower form of coping. Should the anxious patient who no longer wants to face the anxiety associated with the end of life and who wants to be sedated be encouraged to work through such issues? Or is it allowable for these patients to have sedation for dealing with their anxiety? How many alternatives should be tried before anxiety is considered unacceptable? When dealing with such requests, professionals should consider their own cultural and religious biases and the cultural and/or religious backgrounds of patients and their families.
Few studies detail the use of terminal sedation for psychosocial symptoms. Four palliative care programs in Israel, South Africa, and Spain participated in one survey. One unique study has described the Japanese experience around the issues of palliative sedation therapy.[2,3][Level of evidence: II] A retrospective study at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston included 1,207 patients admitted to the palliative care unit. Palliative sedation was used in 15% of admissions. The most common indications were delirium (82%) and dyspnea (6%). Sedation in these circumstances is often administered on a temporary basis and was reversible in 23% of this group of patients.
- Fainsinger RL, Waller A, Bercovici M, et al.: A multicentre international study of sedation for uncontrolled symptoms in terminally ill patients. Palliat Med 14 (4): 257-65, 2000. [PUBMED Abstract]
- Morita T, Chinone Y, Ikenaga M, et al.: Ethical validity of palliative sedation therapy: a multicenter, prospective, observational study conducted on specialized palliative care units in Japan. J Pain Symptom Manage 30 (4): 308-19, 2005. [PUBMED Abstract]
- Morita T, Chinone Y, Ikenaga M, et al.: Efficacy and safety of palliative sedation therapy: a multicenter, prospective, observational study conducted on specialized palliative care units in Japan. J Pain Symptom Manage 30 (4): 320-8, 2005. [PUBMED Abstract]
- Elsayem A, Curry Iii E, Boohene J, et al.: Use of palliative sedation for intractable symptoms in the palliative care unit of a comprehensive cancer center. Support Care Cancer 17 (1): 53-9, 2009. [PUBMED Abstract]