End of Life Care: Responsibilities and Risks

Nurses can make a major contribution in easing the transition from aggressive treatment to palliative care, regardless of the setting. To do so, they must be prepared to make ethical and humane decisions while also avoiding professional liability exposures.

Most patients who die in hospitals spend time in an ICU receiving aggressive, high-tech, costly care. As the widely acclaimed SUPPORT study of some 9,000 hospitalized patients found, however, these final days of life are often filled with unnecessary suffering.1 The alternative to this scenario is palliative care, which concentrates not on prolonging life but on providing supportive care that promotes patients' comfort and dignity.
Nurses can make a major contribution in easing the transition from aggressive treatment to palliative care, regardless of the setting. To do so, they must be prepared to make ethical and humane decisions and at the same time consider ways to avoid liability.

Who receives palliative care?

The World Health Organization defines palliative care as the “active, total care of patients whose disease no longer responds to curative treatment…. (It) affirms life and regards dying as a normal process…neither hastens nor postpones death…(and) provides relief from pain and other distressing symptoms.”2
While the precepts of palliative care are rooted in the hospice movement, its delivery need not be limited to patients who are expected to die within six months, as originally conceived by Medicare. Nor should it be offered only to patients enrolled in hospice.

Nursing responsibilities

If your patient is receiving palliative care, you may be part of a healthcare team—and a central player. The makeup of the team varies, but may include—in addition to one or more nurses and the patient's primary care practitioner (PCP)—a social worker, chaplain, pharmacist, dietitian, physical and occupational therapists and other allied health workers.
Nursing tasks include assessing for pain and other distressing symptoms, providing evidence-based interventions to alleviate them, and preventing initiation of interventions that may not improve comfort and quality of life. Nurses also work with team members to attend to the psychological and spiritual dimensions of terminal illness. Finally, nurses must work with family members as they also shift their focus from curing the patient to palliative care. The commitment to family members should continue after the patient's death, with support and referral for counseling, if indicated.

Making choices

End-of-life care is full of choices: Should pneumonia be treated with antibiotics? Would a ventilator alleviate respiratory distress? Should tube feeding be started? Should dialysis be continued? According to the precepts of palliative care, the patient should be at the center of these choices. But what happens if the patient is unconscious, unable to speak or senile and cannot make these choices? That's where the Terri Schiavo case becomes relevant.
To many observers, the lesson of this case—in which the husband and parents battled for years over what kind of care their loved one should have—is that decisions would have been vastly easier if Ms. Schiavo, despite her youth, had an advanced directive. It could have specified her wishes regarding interventions like the artificial nutrition that kept her alive for all those years. Terri Schiavo might also have had a healthcare proxy (a durable power of attorney for healthcare), clearly defining whom she wished to speak for her when she could not speak for herself. Yet even when such documents are executed and in the medical record, they don't always guarantee that the patient's wishes will be carried out.
Sally Okun, RN, an experienced hospice nurse with the nonprofit Center for Life Care Planning and Support, Hyannis, MA, has developed a more comprehensive solution she calls Advanced Care Planning (ACP), which many hospices have adopted.3 ACP, a type of anticipatory guidance introduced early in the patient's illness, involves both the family members and the patient. “If we can improve communication and lifecare planning earlier in the lifespan [of the patient], each one of us will become more experienced with balancing important health-related decisions, including those near the end of life,” Okun believes. In what she calls “lifecare conversations,” the patient and family members, working with the interdisciplinary team, discuss the likely course of the illness, and the benefits and drawbacks of available interventions. They work together to define the patient's goals and choose the best means to attain them. Writing an advanced directive, which should be reevaluated periodically, is often a part of this comprehensive process.

What about DNR orders?

Even when the patient has an advanced directive or has clearly said he or she does not wish to receive CPR in a life-threatening situation, CPR is mandatory for respiratory or cardiac arrest—unless the chart contains a PCP's DNR order. It's vital for nurses to help patients and families understand this, to provide information about the odds that the resuscitation efforts will succeed, to find out whether the patient or the designated surrogate wants a DNR order and, if so, to request the order from a PCP.

Risks and ethical dilemmas

End-of-life care often involves choices that are ethically difficult and give rise to fears of potential liability. Withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment such as dialysis or a feeding tube and the need for large or escalating doses of opioids (which can lead to serious adverse effects or even be lethal) or sedatives are particularly troubling issues.
Here's what the ANA says about opioids: “Nurses must use effective doses of medications prescribed for symptom control and nurses have a moral obligation to advocate on behalf of the patient when prescribed medication is insufficiently managing pain and other distressing symptoms. The increasing titration of medication to achieve adequate symptom control is ethically justified.”4
The Hospice and Palliative Nursing Association takes a similar position regarding the use of potentially lethal sedatives—a practice sometimes called terminal sedation: “For imminently dying patients… whose suffering is unrelenting and unendurable,” its position statement says, “… medications intended to induce varying degrees of unconsciousness but not death…may offer relief.”5
Actions based on these principles are not the same as euthanasia or assisted suicide, which are not sanctioned by nursing codes of conduct and are illegal in almost every state.
Withholding and withdrawing life-sustaining therapy is also legally and ethically permissible if it is the patient's fully informed and freely made wish—or if the therapy is causing or will cause harm to the patient or offers no benefit to the patient. Artificial nutrition and hydration may be withheld or withdrawn on the same grounds. To avoid liability, however, it is essential to follow your institution's guidelines n these issues, as well as your state's law.
Your role, regardless of the circumstances, is to advocate for the patient's wishes, as expressed in an advanced directive or an advance planning conversation or by the patient's chosen surrogate. The family may want to consult with a psychiatrist, ethicist, chaplain, social worker, pharmacist or palliative care specialist in making an end-of-life care decision. Judy Lentz, RN, CEO of the Hospice and Palliative Nurses Association, noted, “Decisions based on the known desires of the patient and family, as the unit of care, are the guiding directives for the patient plan of care.”
If you find yourself in a position where a patient's desire to end life-sustaining interventions conflicts with your own belief system, request that his or her care be transferred to a colleague. As always, thoroughly document any conversations you have with the patient, family or other professionals about end-of-life decisions to protect yourself against potential liability.


  1. Knauss W et al. SUPPORT: A controlled trial to improve care for seriously ill hospitalized patients. JAMA 1995;274(20):1591-1598. 
  2. Doyle D, Hanks GWC, et al. Oxford Textbook of Palliative Medicine, 2nd ed. New York University Press, 1998 
  3. Okun S. A framework for collaborative consumercentered care. Innovations in End-of-Life Care. 2003;5(3). www.edc.org/lastacts. 
  4. American Nurses Association: Position statement on pain management and control of distressing symptoms in dying patients. Effective date, December 5, 2003. 
  5. Hospice and Palliative Nurses Association. Position Statement. Palliative Sedation at End of Life. www.hpna.org.
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