A Staged Approach to Withdrawing Life Support

A South Korean Ethics Committee uses a staged approach to Withdrawing Life Support

In follow up to this blog’s April 23, 2009 post: “Letting the Conscious But Incompetent, Non Terminally Ill, Patient Die.” A South Korean hospital used a staged approach to consider the withdrawal of artificial life support based upon the condition of the patient.

On June 11, 2009 an Ethics Committee at the Yonsei University Severance Hospital in Seoul Korea decided to remove a 77-year-old woman in a vegetative state from a respirator in accordance with a Supreme Court ruling. 

Severance Hospital President Park Chang-il said:

   

“Though we should comply with the Supreme Court ruling, the patient is not facing impending death. So after conducting several meetings, we made the decision,” … “Under the three-stage guideline for death with dignity we came up with, we will make a prudent decision for patients who are in the second stage like the patient in question.”

Stage 1: patients facing impending death due to irrecoverable diseases such as brain death or impairment of multiple organs.
Stage 2: Patients in a vegetative state on respirators.
Stage 3: Patients able to breathe on their own.

Life support for patients in the first and second stages will be removed when certain criteria are clear such as patient self-determination, family consent and the ethics committee’s conditions are met.

In the light of the case discussed in the April 23 post, ethics committee should be required to pursue, with greater scrutiny depending upon the cognitive level and medical condition of the patient. It is unlikely that the ethics committee in Seoul would have approved of discharging a conscious but incompetent, non-terminally ill patient and resultant death.

Remember: The greater the cognitive and medical condition of a patient, the greater the level of scrutiny that is required before life sustaining treatment can be withheld or withdrawn. The greater the ambiguity the more need there is to err on the side of protecting the patient and to err on the side of life. Such an effort serves to protect the life of the patient and protect physicians and hospitals from potential liability.

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