End-of-Life Challenges: Honoring Autonomy

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Patients' end-of-life decisions challenge nurses to improve palliative care, symptom management, and patient advocacy, and examine ethical issues. When terminally ill patients take charge of the last stages of life, they may challenge nurses to reexamine attitudes about lifesaving technology and autonomy and values about preserving life. Staff members can become benevolent and believe that they know what is best despite the patient's independent decisions. When patients unsuccessfully decline continued aggressive, life prolonging strategies, they may decide to hasten dying rather than accept a natural death. Researchers (Breitbart WS et al. JAMA. 2000;284:2907-2911) defined desire for hastened death as a unifying construct underlying requests for assisted suicide, euthanasia, and withdrawal of food and fluids. When a terminally ill patient considers a hastened death, the nurse needs to examine the patient's mental health, symptom management, advance directives, and decision making. Medical and psychological symptoms and spiritual distress often trigger thoughts of hastening death even when pain and symptoms have been treated (Breitbart WS et al. JAMA. 2000;284:2907-2911). Ethical issues and guidelines for management of patients and evaluation of rationality are presented.

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