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Ethical and legal views of physicians regarding deactivation of cardiac implantable electrical devices: A quantitative assessment

      Background

      Despite the high prevalence of pacemakers and implantable cardioverter-defibrillators, little is known about physicians' views surrounding the ethical and legal aspects of managing these devices at the end of life.

      Objective

      The purpose of this study was to identify physicians' experiences and views surrounding the ethical and legal aspects of managing cardiac devices at the end of life.

      Methods

      Survey questions were administered to internal medicine physicians and subspecialists at a tertiary care center. Physicians were surveyed about their clinical experience, legal knowledge, and ethical beliefs relating to the withdrawal of PM and ICD therapy in comparison to other life-sustaining therapies.

      Results

      Responses were obtained from 185 physicians. Compared to withdrawal of PMs and ICDs, physicians more often reported having participated in the withdrawal or removal of mechanical ventilation (86.1% vs 33.9%, P <.0001), dialysis (60.6% vs 33.9%, P <.001), and feeding tubes (73.8% vs 33.9%, P <.0001). Physicians were consistently less comfortable discussing cessation of PMs and ICDs compared to other life-sustaining therapies (P <.005). Only 65% of physicians correctly identified the legal status of euthanasia in the United States, and 20% accurately reported the legal status of physician-assisted suicide in the United States. Compared to deactivation of an ICD, physicians more often characterized deactivation of a PM in a pacemaker-dependent patient as physician-assisted suicide (19% vs 10%, P = .027) or euthanasia (9% vs 1%, P <.001).

      Conclusion

      In this single-center study, internists were less comfortable discussing cessation of PM and ICD therapy compared to other life-sustaining therapies and lacked experience with this practice. Education regarding the legal and ethical parameters of device deactivation is needed.

      Keywords

      Abbreviations:

      ICD (implantable cardioverter-defibrillator), PM (pacemaker)

      Introduction

      Navigating end-of-life care for patients who require life-sustaining devices can be clinically and ethically challenging.
      • Lampert R.
      • Hayes D.L.
      • Annas G.J.
      • et al.
      HRS Expert Consensus Statement on the Management of Cardiovascular Implantable Electronic Devices (CIEDs) in patients nearing end of life or requesting withdrawal of therapy: developed in collaboration with the American College of Cardiology (ACC), the American Geriatrics Society (AGS), the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine (AAHPM); the American Heart Association (AHA), and the European Heart Rhythm Association (EHRA).
      Physicians have reported a lack of confidence in approaching end-of-life care decisions involving therapies such as dialysis and mechanical ventilation.
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      • Sood J.R.
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      Physicians' confidence in discussing do not resuscitate orders with patients and surrogates.
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      Why is it difficult for staff to discuss advance directives with chronic dialysis patients?.
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      Nephrologists' reported attitudes about factors influencing recommendations to initiate or withdraw dialysis.
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      Physicians' decisions to withhold and withdraw life-sustaining treatment.
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      Decisions near the end of life: professional views on life-sustaining treatments.
      Patients have reported an interest in participating in these decisions, although comfort and understanding vary considerably according to the setting and complexity of the intervention.
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      Understanding cardiopulmonary resuscitation decision making: perspectives of seriously ill hospitalized patients and family members.
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      Goal setting as a shared decision making strategy among clinicians and their older patients.
      Withdrawal of life-sustaining therapies has even led to significant public controversy and debate in cases such as the legal battle to remove Terri Schiavo's feeding tube.
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      “Culture of life” politics at the bedside—the case of Terri Schiavo.
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      Terri Schiavo—a tragedy compounded.
      Permanent heart rhythm devices, such as pacemakers (PM) and implantable cardioverter-defibrillators (ICDs), prolong patients' lives across a wide spectrum of cardiovascular diseases.
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      The effect of cardiac resynchronization on morbidity and mortality in heart failure.
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      Cardiac-resynchronization therapy with or without an implantable defibrillator in advanced chronic heart failure.
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      • et al.
      Prophylactic implantation of a defibrillator in patients with myocardial infarction and reduced ejection fraction.
      Currently, more than two million patients have these devices,
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      • Ellenbogen K.A.
      • et al.
      ACC/AHA/HRS 2008 Guidelines for Device-Based Therapy of Cardiac Rhythm Abnormalities: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines (Writing Committee to Revise the ACC/AHA/NASPE 2002 Guideline Update for Implantation of Cardiac Pacemakers and Antiarrhythmia Devices): developed in collaboration with the American Association for Thoracic Surgery and Society of Thoracic Surgeons.
      and this number will continue to grow due to an aging U.S. population and expanding clinical indications.
      • Goldstein N.
      • Carlson M.
      • Livote E.
      • Kutner J.S.
      Brief communication: management of implantable cardioverter-defibrillators in hospice: a nationwide survey.
      • Hlatky M.A.
      • Sanders G.D.
      • Owens D.K.
      Evidence-based medicine and policy: the case of the implantable cardioverter defibrillator.
      Despite the effectiveness of heart rhythm devices, clinical studies demonstrate 5% to 20% annual mortality rates for recipients, meaning that tens of thousands of deaths occur annually among these patients.
      • Cleland J.G.
      • Daubert J.C.
      • Erdmann E.
      • et al.
      The effect of cardiac resynchronization on morbidity and mortality in heart failure.
      • Bristow M.R.
      • Saxon L.A.
      • Boehmer J.
      • et al.
      Cardiac-resynchronization therapy with or without an implantable defibrillator in advanced chronic heart failure.
      • Moss A.J.
      • Zareba W.
      • Hall W.J.
      • et al.
      Prophylactic implantation of a defibrillator in patients with myocardial infarction and reduced ejection fraction.
      • Lamas G.A.
      • Lee K.L.
      • Sweeney M.O.
      • et al.
      Ventricular pacing or dual-chamber pacing for sinus-node dysfunction.
      Therefore, physicians caring for this broadening population of device recipients will inevitably be confronted with the possibility of device deactivation.
      Little research is available to guide physician decision-making regarding these devices at patients' end of life despite the challenges involved in management.
      • Lampert R.
      • Hayes D.L.
      • Annas G.J.
      • et al.
      HRS Expert Consensus Statement on the Management of Cardiovascular Implantable Electronic Devices (CIEDs) in patients nearing end of life or requesting withdrawal of therapy: developed in collaboration with the American College of Cardiology (ACC), the American Geriatrics Society (AGS), the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine (AAHPM); the American Heart Association (AHA), and the European Heart Rhythm Association (EHRA).
      • Berger J.T.
      The ethics of deactivating implanted cardioverter defibrillators.
      • Zellner R.A.
      • Aulisio M.P.
      • Lewis W.R.
      Should implantable cardioverter-defibrillators and permanent pacemakers in patients with terminal illness be deactivated? Deactivating permanent pacemaker in patients with terminal illness. Patient autonomy is paramount.
      • Goldstein N.E.
      • Mehta D.
      • Teitelbaum E.
      • Bradley E.H.
      • Morrison R.S.
      “It's like crossing a bridge” complexities preventing physicians from discussing deactivation of implantable defibrillators at the end of life.
      • Mueller P.S.
      • Jenkins S.M.
      • Bramstedt K.A.
      • Hayes D.L.
      Deactivating implanted cardiac devices in terminally ill patients: practices and attitudes.
      • Kelley A.S.
      • Reid M.C.
      • Miller D.H.
      • Fins J.J.
      • Lachs M.S.
      Implantable cardioverter-defibrillator deactivation at the end of life: a physician survey.
      • Sherazi S.
      • Daubert J.P.
      • Block R.C.
      • et al.
      Physicians' preferences and attitudes about end-of-life care in patients with an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator.
      Immediate death or acute cardiovascular symptoms may follow deactivation of devices treating heart rhythm abnormalities or heart failure, and these outcomes may be unpredictable and beyond the experience of some physicians.
      • Goldstein N.E.
      • Mehta D.
      • Teitelbaum E.
      • Bradley E.H.
      • Morrison R.S.
      “It's like crossing a bridge” complexities preventing physicians from discussing deactivation of implantable defibrillators at the end of life.
      Many physicians are uncertain about the experience of clinical arrhythmias or ICD shocks, making communication with patients more difficult.
      • Kelley A.S.
      • Reid M.C.
      • Miller D.H.
      • Fins J.J.
      • Lachs M.S.
      Implantable cardioverter-defibrillator deactivation at the end of life: a physician survey.
      • Sherazi S.
      • Daubert J.P.
      • Block R.C.
      • et al.
      Physicians' preferences and attitudes about end-of-life care in patients with an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator.
      • Kay G.N.
      • Bittner G.T.
      Should implantable cardioverter-defibrillators and permanent pacemakers in patients with terminal illness be deactivated? Deactivating implantable cardioverter-defibrillators and permanent pacemakers in patients with terminal illness. An ethical distinction.
      • Goldstein N.
      • Bradley E.
      • Zeidman J.
      • Mehta D.
      • Morrison R.S.
      Barriers to conversations about deactivation of implantable defibrillators in seriously ill patients: results of a nationwide survey comparing cardiology specialists to primary care physicians.
      A study of heart rhythm specialists with substantial personal experience deactivating devices suggested that, despite frequently performing deactivations, many remained uncomfortable with the practice and favored involvement of psychiatric and/or ethics consultations.
      • Mueller P.S.
      • Jenkins S.M.
      • Bramstedt K.A.
      • Hayes D.L.
      Deactivating implanted cardiac devices in terminally ill patients: practices and attitudes.
      The specific reasons for these views, however, are not clear.
      Similarly, although studies have suggested that many physicians view PM and ICD deactivation differently than withdrawal of other life-sustaining therapies, the underlying basis for those views remains poorly understood.
      • Zellner R.A.
      • Aulisio M.P.
      • Lewis W.R.
      Should implantable cardioverter-defibrillators and permanent pacemakers in patients with terminal illness be deactivated? Deactivating permanent pacemaker in patients with terminal illness. Patient autonomy is paramount.
      • Mueller P.S.
      • Jenkins S.M.
      • Bramstedt K.A.
      • Hayes D.L.
      Deactivating implanted cardiac devices in terminally ill patients: practices and attitudes.
      • Kelley A.S.
      • Reid M.C.
      • Miller D.H.
      • Fins J.J.
      • Lachs M.S.
      Implantable cardioverter-defibrillator deactivation at the end of life: a physician survey.
      • Sherazi S.
      • Daubert J.P.
      • Block R.C.
      • et al.
      Physicians' preferences and attitudes about end-of-life care in patients with an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator.
      • Sulmasy D.P.
      Within you/without you: biotechnology, ontology, and ethics.
      Physicians may have legal, ethical, or other objections to PM and ICD deactivation. Reluctance to withdraw these therapies may be related to attitudes and knowledge surrounding end-of-life care in general. In particular, the views of physicians apart from arrhythmia specialists have not been adequately explored despite their frequent responsibilities managing these patients at the end of life.
      • Goldstein N.
      • Carlson M.
      • Livote E.
      • Kutner J.S.
      Brief communication: management of implantable cardioverter-defibrillators in hospice: a nationwide survey.
      To shed more light on this complex and increasingly common area of health care delivery, we surveyed internal medicine physicians and subspecialists about their specific ethical beliefs and legal knowledge relating to the withdrawal of PM and ICD therapy in end-of-life patients. We then compared these results to their views on withdrawing other life-sustaining therapies.

      Methods

      Study population and recruitment

      All internal medicine physicians and internal medicine subspecialists at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, an academic tertiary care center in Boston, Massachusetts, were eligible for study participation. These 746 physicians included 471 clinical attendings, 158 residents, and 117 subspecialty fellows. Physicians were recruited to participate by e-mail through an anonymous link (no honorarium offered). Research was conducted with approval of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Institutional Review Board.

      Survey instrument

      Survey questions were developed with input from collaborators having ethics and legal expertise. Questions and definitions were pilot tested in a convenience sample of potential respondents for comprehension prior to administration to the study population.
      The survey was divided into five parts. First, we obtained basic physician demographic information, including specialty training and practice level. Next, we assessed physicians' subjective comfort with patient discussions about withdrawal of life-sustaining devices. Physicians were asked to rate on a five-point Likert scale their comfort in discussing withdrawal of five different devices in their patients (mechanical ventilation, feeding tubes, dialysis, PM, and ICD). Third, we asked physicians to report whether they had previous objective experience with withdrawing life-sustaining therapy from each of the five devices. In the case of PM or ICD deactivation, we also asked physicians to report whether they had sought official hospital legal or ethical consultations.
      The fourth section of the survey assessed physicians' legal knowledge and ethical views regarding aspects of withdrawal of care at the end of life. Physicians were provided with a set of standard definitions (Figure 1)
      • Beauchamp T.L.
      • Childress J.F.
      Principles of Biomedical Ethics.
      and queried about the legal status of euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide. We also asked physicians whether they were concerned about malpractice liability for decisions made about deactivating life-sustaining cardiac devices.
      Figure thumbnail gr1
      Figure 1Definitions provided to study participants.
      Physicians were asked whether or not they believed deactivation of a PM or ICD was morally equivalent to turning off or stopping chest compressions, mechanical ventilation, dialysis, or feeding tubes. Physicians were then asked to provide their ethical perspectives on whether deactivation of an ICD or PM in a pacemaker-dependent patient should be considered euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, or palliative care. To further characterize areas of ethical concern surrounding cardiac device deactivation, we asked physicians to rate their level of concern regarding specific aspects of the informed consent process for withdrawal of a life-sustaining cardiac device and situations involving disagreements regarding the appropriateness of withdrawal among caregivers for an end-of-life patient. On a scale from 0 to 10 scale, a score of 0 was defined as “no concerns” and a score of 10 was defined as “very concerned.” Scores ≥8 were prespecified by the investigators to indicate a substantial expression of ethical concern.
      The final section of the survey involved assessing physicians' reactions to a series of clinical scenarios. We presented two descriptions of patients at end of life with different life-sustaining devices or therapies: an inpatient with life-threatening sepsis and an outpatient with terminal cancer. Physicians were asked their comfort withdrawing ventilator, dialysis, feeding tubes, vasopressors, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and antibiotics, as well as cardiac devices (PM or ICD). Subsequent scenarios involving cardiac devices presented the patients as pacemaker dependent or non–pacemaker dependent and as having previously received or not received ICD treatment for life-threatening arrhythmias. Physicians rated their comfort on a 10-point Likert scale, with scores ≥8 prespecified as indicative of strong comfort.

      Data analysis

      Statistical calculations were performed using SAS statistical software (version 9.1, SAS Institute, Cary, NC, USA). Student's t-tests and Chi-square tests were used to compare continuous and discrete outcomes, respectively. P <.05 was considered significant.

      Results

      We received responses from 185 (25%) physicians (Table 1). Among the 153 responders who provided professional training data, nearly all were trained as internists (150 [98%]), and most practiced at the level of clinical attending (119 [69%]). Among the physicians reporting additional subspecialty training, the most common fields were cardiology (13 [8.5%]), pulmonary/critical care (13 [8.5%]), and geriatrics (8 [5.2%]).
      Table 1Subject characteristics
      DemographicsTotal N = 185
      Percentages refer to proportion of physicians who responded to each question.
      Male101 (54.9)
      White140 (76.5)
      Age <35 yr72 (39.1)
      Age >65 yr17 (9.2)
      Professional Experience
      Clinical attending119 (69.2)
      Fellow25 (14.5)
      Resident28 (16.3)
      Specialty Training
      Internist150 (98.0)
      Subspecialist36 (23.5)
      Cardiologist13 (8.5)
      Pulmonary/critical care13 (8.5)
      Geriatrics8 (5.2)
      Values are given as number (%).
      low asterisk Percentages refer to proportion of physicians who responded to each question.

      Comfort and clinical experience with withdrawing life-sustaining devices

      Although the vast majority of physicians (149/167 [89%]) conveyed comfort discussing end-of-life care in general with their patients, physicians reported being significantly less comfortable discussing deactivation of PMs or ICDs compared to three more familiar clinical scenarios (ventilation, feeding tube, and dialysis, P <.005 for all comparisons; Figure 2). Physicians were least comfortable participating in a decision to deactivate a PM in a pacemaker-dependent patient who was critically or terminally ill; this task was the most problematic for physicians with less clinical experience (P <.005 for comparison of trainees vs clinical attendings).
      Figure thumbnail gr2
      Figure 2Physicians' lack of comfort discussing withdrawal of specific life-sustaining therapies. *P <.005 for comparison of mechanical ventilation, feeding tubes, and dialysis vs each of three cardiac device options. ICD = implantable cardioverter-defibrillator; PM = pacemaker.
      Compared to withdrawal of PM or ICD therapy, physicians in our sample more often reported having participated in the withdrawal or removal of mechanical ventilation (86.1% vs 33.9%, P <.0001), dialysis (60.6% vs 33.9%, P <.001), and feeding tubes (73.8% vs 33.9%, P <.0001). Few had personally deactivated either type of cardiac device in end-of-life patients (10% PMs, 11% ICDs).
      Despite widespread discomfort, few physicians (<2% for both PMs and ICDs) had requested legal consultation to guide patient management decisions, and fewer than 1% had requested ethics consultation.

      Legal knowledge

      Physicians displayed a greater understanding of local legal issues related to end-of-life care than of national policy. Physicians correctly identified that euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are not legal in Massachusetts (98% for both). However, only 65% (106/163) of physicians were able to correctly identify that euthanasia is illegal everywhere in the United States. Similarly, only 20% (33/164) could identify that physician-assisted suicide is legal in more than one U.S. state.
      Deficiencies in physicians' legal knowledge were more pronounced for questions related to cardiac devices. A total of 51 (31%) of 163 correctly responded that the presence of an underlying rhythm (i.e., pacemaker dependence) does not influence the legal status of PM deactivation. In addition, 59 (36%) of 163 and 89 (55%) of 161 correctly indicated that the presence of a terminal illness does not influence the legal status of PM or ICD deactivation, respectively. On the other hand, 42 (26%) of 161 physicians thought the presence of an underlying rhythm should influence the legality of PM deactivation, whereas slightly fewer thought that the presence of a terminal illness should influence the legality of device deactivation (27/161 [17%] for PMs, 22/161 [14%] for ICDs). A substantial minority of physicians were concerned that PM (30/149 [20%]) or ICD (29/149 [20%]) deactivation could expose them to legal liability.

      Ethical views

      Respondents viewed deactivation of PMs and ICDs in end-of-life patients differently from withdrawal of other life-sustaining devices (Figure 3). For example, 73 (48%) of 151 and 46 (30%) of 152 physicians felt that ICD and PM deactivation, respectively, were not morally equivalent to cessation of mechanical ventilation. Compared to deactivation of an ICD, physicians more often characterized deactivation of a PM in a pacemaker-dependent patient as physician-assisted suicide (30/161 [19%] vs 16/160 [10%], P = .027) or euthanasia (151/161 [9%] vs 2/160 [1%], P <.001).
      Figure thumbnail gr3
      Figure 3Percentage of physicians who viewed withdrawal of pacemaker (PM) (red hatched bars) or implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD) (blue solid bars) therapy to be morally different compared to withdrawal of other life-sustaining therapy. P <.001 for ICD vs PM for mechanical ventilation or dialysis; P =.016 for ICD vs PM for feeding tube; P = NS for ICD vs PM for chest compressions.
      Physicians pointed to potentially problematic ethical issues in their experiences with cardiac device deactivation. A substantial minority of physicians did not believe that the informed consent process prior to implantation adequately addressed the possibility of device deactivation (31/146 [21%] for PM, 27/145 [19%] for ICD). Physicians frequently viewed discord among patients' family members (102/145 [70%)] or the patient care team (83/144 [58%]) as points of concern in the management of cardiac devices at end of life. Nearly half (68/148 [46%]) strongly agreed that patient care would be improved by national guidelines addressing the appropriate time for cardiac device deactivation in end-of-life patients.

      Clinical vignettes

      In the hypothetical scenarios presented, physicians consistently expressed strong comfort with withdrawal of mechanical ventilation (130/144 [90%]), dialysis (132/144 [92%]), feeding tubes (131/144 [91%]) for a critically ill patient with a very poor prognosis. Physicians also supported withholding these therapies for a stable outpatient with terminal cancer (mechanical ventilation 141/144 [98%], dialysis 141/144 [98%], feeding tubes 139/144 [97%]).
      For cardiac devices in patients who were pacemaker dependent, nearly all physicians supported deactivation of a PM in cases of brain death (141/143 [99%]) or a coma with very poor prognosis (133/142 [94%]). In patients who were not pacemaker dependent, there was also widespread support for deactivation of a PM (99% for brain death vs 95% for a coma). In contrast, for stable outpatients with terminal cancer requesting deactivation of their pacemaker, support for withdrawal of PM therapy was not as strong but still was indicated by over half of the respondents. Specifically, PM deactivation was supported less often for pacemaker-dependent patients than for non–pacemaker-dependent patients (73/141 [52%] vs 126/141 [83%], P <.0001).
      In contrast to withdrawal of PM therapy, there was general agreement about withdrawal of a secondary-prevention ICD in brain-dead patients (140/142 [99%]), comatose inpatients (135/141 [96%]), and stable but terminally ill cancer patients who requested this course of action (125/141 [89%]). Responses were similar for patients with a primary-prevention ICD (139/141 [99%], 138/141 [98%], and 130/140 [93%], respectively).

      Discussion

      This study expands the understanding of internal medicine physician practices, knowledge, and beliefs regarding PM and ICD deactivation. Although most physicians expressed confidence in discussing end-of-life care in general, some lack experience and comfort in managing cardiac devices specifically at the end of life and have important gaps and inconsistencies in their legal and ethical knowledge pertaining to cessation of PM and ICD therapy. Notably, 25% to 49% of physicians considered deactivation of PMs and ICDs to be morally distinct from withdrawal of other life-sustaining therapies, and cessation of these devices was less frequently supported in clinical scenarios involving stable ambulatory patients with terminal illnesses.
      Recent consensus guidelines have emphasized the importance of thoughtful, multidisciplinary care of patients with PMs and ICDs whose care frequently involves multiple specialties apart from cardiac electrophysiologists.
      • Lampert R.
      • Hayes D.L.
      • Annas G.J.
      • et al.
      HRS Expert Consensus Statement on the Management of Cardiovascular Implantable Electronic Devices (CIEDs) in patients nearing end of life or requesting withdrawal of therapy: developed in collaboration with the American College of Cardiology (ACC), the American Geriatrics Society (AGS), the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine (AAHPM); the American Heart Association (AHA), and the European Heart Rhythm Association (EHRA).
      There is a broad consensus in the health care field that patients with decision-making capacity have the right to request withdrawal of life-sustaining therapies and that physicians have an obligation to respect those wishes.
      • Lampert R.
      • Hayes D.L.
      • Annas G.J.
      • et al.
      HRS Expert Consensus Statement on the Management of Cardiovascular Implantable Electronic Devices (CIEDs) in patients nearing end of life or requesting withdrawal of therapy: developed in collaboration with the American College of Cardiology (ACC), the American Geriatrics Society (AGS), the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine (AAHPM); the American Heart Association (AHA), and the European Heart Rhythm Association (EHRA).
      • Annas G.J.
      The Rights of Patients: The Authoritative ACLU Guide to the Rights of Patients.
      • Pellegrino E.D.
      Decisions to withdraw life-sustaining treatment: a moral algorithm.
      AMA 1996
      AMA Code of Medical Ethics: Policy on End of Life Care: Opinion E-2.20.
      Even if such actions lead to a patient's death, it is considered neither euthanasia nor assisted suicide to respect a patient's right to refuse treatment or request treatment withdrawal. No medical therapy is mandatory, and there is no meaningful distinction in the law or among ethicists regarding different life-sustaining therapies, such as mechanical ventilation, feeding tubes, dialysis, and cardiac devices.
      • Lampert R.
      • Hayes D.L.
      • Annas G.J.
      • et al.
      HRS Expert Consensus Statement on the Management of Cardiovascular Implantable Electronic Devices (CIEDs) in patients nearing end of life or requesting withdrawal of therapy: developed in collaboration with the American College of Cardiology (ACC), the American Geriatrics Society (AGS), the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine (AAHPM); the American Heart Association (AHA), and the European Heart Rhythm Association (EHRA).
      • Zellner R.A.
      • Aulisio M.P.
      • Lewis W.R.
      Should implantable cardioverter-defibrillators and permanent pacemakers in patients with terminal illness be deactivated? Deactivating permanent pacemaker in patients with terminal illness. Patient autonomy is paramount.
      • Wilkoff B.L.
      • Auricchio A.
      • Brugada J.
      • et al.
      HRS/EHRA expert consensus on the monitoring of cardiovascular implantable electronic devices (CIEDs): description of techniques, indications, personnel, frequency and ethical considerations.
      The results of this study demonstrate, however, that some physicians do draw such boundaries. Physicians described wide experience and comfort with general management of end-of-life care and in withdrawing interventions such as mechanical ventilation and dialysis. Yet physicians had far less experience participating in decisions to deactivate PMs and ICDs, and many were less comfortable discussing withdrawal of these therapies compared with other life-sustaining treatments.
      Many physicians were unaware of different laws that may guide discontinuation of life-sustaining therapies both generally and specifically with regard to PMs and ICDs. Physicians characterized PM and ICD deactivation as physician-assisted suicide substantially more frequently than previously reported.
      • Mueller P.S.
      • Jenkins S.M.
      • Bramstedt K.A.
      • Hayes D.L.
      Deactivating implanted cardiac devices in terminally ill patients: practices and attitudes.
      This is particularly important because nearly all physicians correctly identified that physician-assisted suicide is illegal in Massachusetts (the location of the study center), implying that for these caregivers, device deactivation would not be viewed as legal in their state, which is not the case. Although these differences may reflect the greater expertise with cardiac devices in previous study populations, inevitably, physicians apart from electrophysiologists will encounter these clinical situations and therefore will need to be familiar with the relevant laws guiding treatment options.
      Notably, many physicians were less familiar with the legality of physician-assisted suicide in states other than Massachusetts. Although knowledge of local laws is undoubtedly more important for direct clinical care, the status of physician-assisted suicide nationally has led to broad public debate and legal challenges involving the U.S. Supreme Court. Given the prominence of end-of-life care in national discussions on health care reform, we consider it essential for physicians caring for patients receiving life-sustaining therapies to maintain a working understanding of the national context for these debates.
      Importantly, many physicians viewed deactivation of PMs and ICDs as morally distinct from each other as well as from withdrawal of other life-sustaining therapies. The specific reasons for these distinctions require further investigation, although our results suggest that variability in legal knowledge may contribute to the difference in perception. Additionally, the actual clinical experience of deactivating different therapies—including PMs and ICDs—varies in ways that may influence perceptions. Even patients who are “dependent” on mechanical ventilation, dialysis, vasopressors, or pacemakers may not necessarily die immediately when those therapies are withdrawn, and this unpredictability (perhaps heightened with regard to devices that are less familiar) may contribute to moral unease. Similarly, although mechanical ventilation or shocks from an ICD are obviously intrusive or painful, the burdens of pacing therapy from a patient's perspective may not be as readily apparent.

      Study limitations

      Our study has several limitations. Subjects included were drawn from a single tertiary care center, and the response rate for our survey was limited. Despite the anonymous nature of the survey, there is a potential for response bias with physicians reporting themselves as having an elevated sense of comfort with complex ethical situations.

      Summary

      These data suggest that efforts are required to better educate physicians regarding the legal and ethical underpinnings of life-sustaining therapy. Because less experienced physicians are particularly uncomfortable with device deactivation, initiatives directed at medical students and residents may be particularly important. Adding education on cessation of PMs and ICDs alongside training on withdrawal of other therapies may provide a foundation for a broader experience with these modalities and allow nonelectrophysiologists to engage patients and families in these discussions more effectively. At a minimum, health care facilities need clear policies regarding management of life-sustaining therapies, including cardiac devices, particularly in facilities where immediate electrophysiology consultation may not be available.
      • Goldstein N.
      • Carlson M.
      • Livote E.
      • Kutner J.S.
      Brief communication: management of implantable cardioverter-defibrillators in hospice: a nationwide survey.
      Additionally, physicians caring for patients with PMs and ICDs should include discussion of these devices in conversations regarding goals of care, code status, and advance care planning.
      All physicians should understand that patients with decision-making capacity have the right to refuse interventions or to ask that therapies be withheld or withdrawn, regardless of the therapy in question or the consequences of stopping treatment.
      • Annas G.J.
      “Culture of life” politics at the bedside—the case of Terri Schiavo.
      • Zellner R.A.
      • Aulisio M.P.
      • Lewis W.R.
      Should implantable cardioverter-defibrillators and permanent pacemakers in patients with terminal illness be deactivated? Deactivating permanent pacemaker in patients with terminal illness. Patient autonomy is paramount.
      Although some may view PMs or ICDs as unique,
      • Kay G.N.
      • Bittner G.T.
      Should implantable cardioverter-defibrillators and permanent pacemakers in patients with terminal illness be deactivated? Deactivating implantable cardioverter-defibrillators and permanent pacemakers in patients with terminal illness. An ethical distinction.
      there is no identifiable medical, legal, or ethical basis for this distinction.
      • Lampert R.
      • Hayes D.L.
      • Annas G.J.
      • et al.
      HRS Expert Consensus Statement on the Management of Cardiovascular Implantable Electronic Devices (CIEDs) in patients nearing end of life or requesting withdrawal of therapy: developed in collaboration with the American College of Cardiology (ACC), the American Geriatrics Society (AGS), the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine (AAHPM); the American Heart Association (AHA), and the European Heart Rhythm Association (EHRA).
      • Sulmasy D.P.
      Within you/without you: biotechnology, ontology, and ethics.
      It is understood, however, that some physicians may object to device deactivation on moral or other grounds, even when they are provided with additional teaching and guidance.
      • Kay G.N.
      • Bittner G.T.
      Should implantable cardioverter-defibrillators and permanent pacemakers in patients with terminal illness be deactivated? Deactivating implantable cardioverter-defibrillators and permanent pacemakers in patients with terminal illness. An ethical distinction.
      Although these physicians cannot be forced to perform actions they deem unethical or otherwise unacceptable, they do have an obligation to provide an alternative means for patients to have their wishes respected.
      • Lampert R.
      • Hayes D.L.
      • Annas G.J.
      • et al.
      HRS Expert Consensus Statement on the Management of Cardiovascular Implantable Electronic Devices (CIEDs) in patients nearing end of life or requesting withdrawal of therapy: developed in collaboration with the American College of Cardiology (ACC), the American Geriatrics Society (AGS), the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine (AAHPM); the American Heart Association (AHA), and the European Heart Rhythm Association (EHRA).
      This may include transfer of care to another facility or to a different provider within the same setting, but in all cases it respects the rights of patients as well as providers. Given the multidisciplinary nature of caring for many patients with heart rhythm devices, cardiac electrophysiologists must work with clinicians from other specialties to ensure consistent, coordinated, and compassionate care for these patients.

      Conclusion

      In this single-center study, internists were less comfortable discussing cessation of PM and ICD therapy compared to other life-sustaining therapies and lacked experience with this practice. Efforts to better educate health care providers about the methods, clinical implications, ethics, and legality of device deactivation should be undertaken.

      Supplementary data

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