Sedation at the end of life – a nation-wide study in palliative care units in Austria

Schur, S. et al. BMC Palliative Care. Published online: 14 May 2016

Background: Sedation is used to an increasing extent in end-of-life care. Definitions and indications in this field are based on expert opinions and case series. Little is known about this practice at palliative care units in Austria.

Methods: Patients who died in Austrian palliative care units between June 2012 and June 2013 were identified. A predefined set of baseline characteristics and information on sedation during the last two weeks before death were obtained by reviewing the patients’ charts.

Results: The data of 2414 patients from 23 palliative care units were available for analysis. Five hundred two (21 %) patients received sedation in the last two weeks preceding their death, 356 (71 %) received continuous sedation until death, and 119 (24 %) received intermittent sedation. The median duration of sedation was 48 h (IQR 10–72 h); 168 patients (34 %) were sedated for less than 24 h. Indications for sedation were delirium (51 %), existential distress (32 %), dyspnea (30 %), and pain (20 %). Midazolam was the most frequently used drug (79 %), followed by lorazepam (13 %), and haloperidol (10 %). Sedated patients were significantly younger (median age 67 years vs. 74 years, p ≤ 0.001, r = 0.22), suffered more often from an oncological disease (92 % vs. 82 %, p ≤ 0.001, φ = 0.107), and were hospitalized more frequently (94 % vs. 76 %, p ≤ 0.001, φ = 0.175). The median number of days between admission to a palliative care ward/mobile palliative care team and death did not differ significantly in sedated versus non-sedated patients (10 vs. 9 days; p = 0.491).

Conclusion: This study provides insights into the practice of end-of-life sedation in Austria. Critical appraisal of these data will serve as a starting point for the development of nation-wide guidelines for palliative sedation in Austria.

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