Ethical conflicts during anesthesia. “Do not resuscitate” orders in the operating room


Abstract:  Patients have the right to make decisions concerning their health care. The right to consent to or refuse treatment is based on the ethical principle of autonomy. Respecting a patient’s autonomy has emerged as one of the leading principle in medical ethics in the last years. In the United States, the Patient Self-Determination Act of 1991 stated that all patients admitted to hospital have to be informed about their right to prepare advance directives and to refuse life-prolonging treatment. Do-not-resuscitate (DNR) orders have been established to provide a mechanism for withholding specific resuscitative therapies in the event of cardiac arrest. Patients may write DNR orders to express in advance their preferences at a time when they are capable of making informed decisions. Terminally ill patients may need palliative surgical interventions to relieve pain or facilitate care. In patients with DNR orders undergoing anaesthesia and surgical procedures, the DNR status in the operating room is increasingly a matter of ethical conflict. Anaesthetic care virtually always implies the provision of resuscitative measures if necessary. Interventions like intubation, mechanical ventilation, or administration of vasoactive drugs may be regarded as a part of resuscitative efforts. There is a remarkable lack of consistency in policies and practices in hospitals regarding interpretation of DNR orders during the perioperative period. Considering policies automatically suspending DNR orders prior to anaesthetic care, the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) in 1993 introduced “Ethical guidelines for the anesthesia care of patients with do not resuscitate orders or other directives that limit treatment”. To address a patient’s right to self-determination in a responsible and ethical way, the ASA recommends explicitly discussing with the patient all limitations of therapeutic interventions. A list of relevant items that should be considered, like defibrillation and chest compression, but also blood product transfusion or the administration of antibiotics, has been provided by the ASA. These statements can provide some order to an increasing state of the uncertainty, but guidelines might also be regarded as imposing restrictions that compromise the anaesthesiologist’s autonomy. I believe that defining accepted and refused interventions in advance is not an appropriate approach to DNR orders during anaesthesia and surgery, as it will be difficult to find a definition of what constitutes resuscitation in this context. Communication with the patient and exchange of information are essential factors promoting ethical decisions. Knowing the individual patient’s preferences and fears, a more suitable approach seems to be the perioperative suspension of the DNR order for a limited period of time, with the assurance that therapeutic procedures instituted during surgery will be discontinued postoperatively in reconsideration of the DNR order and if the underlying disease process turns out to be non-reversible.  (Full article is in German)


Der Anaesthesist


1997 Apr;46(4):267-74.Click here to read

Resource Type:

Journal Article


Mohr M.