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J Am Geriatr Soc. 1998 Jul;46(7):839-48.

Nontreatment and aggressive narcotic therapy among hospitalized pancreatic cancer patients.

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Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine, USA.



Strong feelings about patient autonomy as expressed in living wills, polls, and legislative referenda have been challenging the medical establishment to increase nontreatment, defined as foregoing a life-prolonging treatment, and even to provide treatments having life-shortening potential to selected patients. Because there are little data about the actual practice of these procedures, including aggressive narcotic therapy as defined herein, we studied the terminal management of 417 pancreatic cancer patients.


The medical records of 417 residents of King County, Washington, who died of pancreatic cancer in the time periods 1959-1962, 1969-1972, and 1985-1990, were reviewed to study the frequency of, and risk factors for, end-of-life nontreatment decisions and aggressive narcotic therapy decisions, defined here as the decision to administer treatment doses of narcotics or major sedatives to already comatose patients within 4 hours of death.


Antibiotics were not provided to 71% of the 70 febrile patients (two readings >38.33-38.83 degrees C or one reading of 38.88 degrees C), intravenous fluid was not provided to 43% of 294 dehydrated patients (oral intake <500 mL/24 hours), transfusions were not provided to 39% of 57 severely anemic patients (hematocrit <20%), and laparotomy was not performed for 86% of 36 patients with abdominal emergencies (obstruction, bleeding, dehiscence). Also, 46% of the 118 patients who were comatose for at least 24 hours before death received aggressive narcotic therapy, as defined above. A total of 335 of the 417 patients had documentation of at least one of the above life-threatening conditions or were comatose for at least 24 hours before death, and 289 (86%) of these patients experienced nontreatment of one or more of these conditions or received aggressive narcotic therapy. Nontreatment decisions for febrile, dehydrated, or anemic patients tended to be more frequent if the patient was comatose (P=.004, .010, and .065, respectively), if there was a nontreatment statement in the medical record (P=.009, .035, and .001, respectively), or if the patient was described as terminal (P=.262, .029, and .002, respectively). Aggressive narcotic therapy in comatose patients was more common among patients who had regular visitors (P=.002), who had pre-coma pain (P=.006), who had nontreatment statements in their charts (P=.031), whose in-charge physician was an oncologist (P < .001), who were treated in a community nonprofit hospital compared with a Catholic hospital (P=.007), or who were treated in recent years (P=.011).


Both nontreatment and aggressive narcotic therapy forms of medical management have been occurring commonly in terminal pancreatic cancer patients in King County, Washington, during the past 3 decades, the latter with greater frequency in recent years.

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