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Crit Care. 2008;12(1):R13. doi: 10.1186/cc6786. Epub 2008 Feb 15.

Withholding and withdrawing life-sustaining treatment: a comparative study of the ethical reasoning of physicians and the general public.

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Department of Surgical and Perioperative Sciences, Anaesthesiology, University Hospital of Northern Sweden, Lasarettsbacken SE-90185 Umeå, Sweden.



Our objective was to investigate whether a consensus exists between the general public and health care providers regarding the reasoning and values at stake on the subject of life-sustaining treatment.


A postal questionnaire was sent to a random sample of members of the adult population (n = 989) and to a random sample of intensive care doctors and neurosurgeons (n = 410) practicing in Sweden in 2004. The questionnaire was based on a case involving a severely ill patient and presented arguments for and against withholding and withdrawing treatment, and providing treatment that might hasten death.


Approximately 70% of the physicians and 51% of the general public responded. A majority of doctors (82.3%) stated that they would withhold treatment, whereas a minority of the general public (40.2%) would do so; the arguments forwarded (for instance, belief that the first task of health care is to save life) and considerations regarding quality of life differed significantly between the two groups. Most physicians (94.1%) and members of the general public (77.7%) were prepared to withdraw treatment, and most (95.1% of physicians and 82% of members of the general public) agreed that sedation should be provided.


There are indeed considerable differences in how physicians and the general public assess and reason in critical care situations, but the more hopelessly ill the patient became the more the groups' assessments tended to converge, although they prioritized different arguments. In order to avoid unnecessary dispute and miscommunication, it is important that health care providers be aware of the public's views, expectations, and preferences.

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