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Health Policy. 2007 Oct;83(2-3):131-43. Epub 2007 Apr 12.

Institutional ethics policies on medical end-of-life decisions: a literature review.

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Center for Biomedical Ethics and Law, Faculty of Medicine, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Kapucijnenvoer 35, 3000 Leuven, Belgium.



The responsibility of healthcare administrators for handling ethically sensitive medical practices, such as medical end-of-life decisions (MELDs), within an institutional setting has been receiving more attention. The overall aim of this paper is to thoroughly examine the prevalence, content, communication, and implementation of written institutional ethics policies on MELDs by means of a literature review.


Major databases (Pubmed, Cinahl, PsycINFO, Cochrane Library, FRANCIS, and Philosopher's Index) and reference lists were systematically searched for all relevant papers. Inclusion criteria for relevance were that the study was empirically based and that it focused on the prevalence, content, communication, or implementation of written institutional ethics policies concerning MELDs.


Our search yielded 19 studies of American, Canadian, Dutch and Belgian origin. The majority of studies dealt with do-not-resuscitate (DNR) policies (prevalence: 10-89%). Only Dutch and Belgian studies dealt with policies on pain and symptom control (prevalence: 15-19%) and policies on euthanasia (prevalence: 30-79%). Procedural and technical aspects were a prime focus, while the defining of the specific roles of involved parties was unclear. Little attention was given to exploring ethical principles that question the ethical function of policies. In ethics policies on euthanasia, significant consideration was given to procedures that dealt with conscientious objections of physicians and nurses. Empirical studies about the implementation of ethics policies are scarce.


With regard to providing support for physicians and nurses, DNR and euthanasia policies expressed support by primarily providing technical and procedural guidelines. Further research is needed whether and in which way written institutional ethics policies on MELDs could contribute to better end-of-life care.

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