Endoscopy in a do-not-resuscitate patient: Practical and ethical considerations


Editor’s Note: I am very excited to introduce a section to The New Gastroenterologist that will address topics in clinical medical ethics we frequently face as gastroenterologists. There are several inherent ethical issues in gastroenterology that are not often explicitly discussed, such as periprocedural code status, informed consent, transplantation, performance of endoscopy in the critically ill, and nutrition support in the setting of end of life care. Often the most difficult decisions we make as clinicians are fraught with ethical implications which can be daunting and difficult to navigate. The goal of this section is to address these issues in a case-based format to offer some guidance to young gastroenterologists grappling with similar scenarios.

This month’s issue features the inaugural piece for this series, written by Dr. Lauren Feld (University of Washington), which discusses a clinical scenario in which a patient with a preexisting do-not-resuscitate (DNR) order is about to undergo endoscopy. The article provides a systematic approach to periprocedural code status and highlights existing guidelines that are generally not well known among gastroenterologists.

Vijaya L. Rao, MD
Editor in Chief

An 89-year old female with history of heart failure with reduced ejection fraction, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and dementia is admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) with melena and acute post-hemorrhagic anemia. The family member designated as the patient’s power of attorney (POA) agrees that her code status upon admission will be do-not-resuscitate and do-not-intubate (DNR/DNI) without plan for invasive procedures. However, she has continued overt bleeding with concomitant hemodynamic instability. The POA and ICU team are now asking for urgent endoscopic evaluation, but do not agree to temporary code reversal for the duration of the procedure.

This vignette highlights an important distinction between a patient’s goals of care and the code status. While these two terms are often erroneously used interchangeably, “code status” refers to a patient’s wishes in the event of cardiopulmonary arrest, while “goals of care” refers to a more comprehensive understanding of what care fits within a patient’s values. Patients or their families may still desire interventions such as procedures, but not wish to have a resuscitation attempt in the event of cardiopulmonary arrest. This leads to the commonly encountered clinical scenario in which a patient planning to undergo endoscopy has an active DNR order.

Dr. Lauren D. Feld of the department of gastroenterology and hepatology at the University of Washington, Seattle

Dr. Lauren D. Feld

Frequently, DNR orders are temporarily rescinded prior to invasive procedures. There are several reasons this occurs. First, patients or decision makers may decide that the improved rates of survival in intraprocedural arrests changes their risk-benefit assessment about resuscitation procedures. Secondly, proceduralists may feel an ethical duty to resuscitate a patient if the cause of the arrest is considered iatrogenic and potentially reversible. In addition, proceduralists may worry about legal or professional risk if a patient suffers cardiopulmonary arrest during a procedure and an attempt at resuscitation does not occur.

While this is a frequently encountered clinical scenario, there is wide variation in clinical practice. This variation led to the creation of guidelines set forth by the American Society of Anesthesiologists in 1993 and subsequently adopted by the American College of Surgeons. These guidelines recommend a discussion between the physician and the patient prior to the procedure, utilizing shared decision-making around three options: 1) a full attempt at resuscitation; 2) a limited attempt at resuscitation defined with regard to specific procedures; and 3) a limited attempt at resuscitation defined with regard to the patient’s goals and values.

However, these guidelines are both not well known and frequently not applied amongst clinicians and ancillary staff. Patients are frequently told that they must reverse their DNR order to full code prior to undergoing endoscopy. Dissemination of a systematic approach to a patient with a DNR order who requires endoscopy is important to ensure patients have autonomy over their medical decision-making, while also ensuring that health care professionals feel comfortable with their decisions.


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