Painful ethical choices in 2020 vs. 2010: How has thinking changed?


Much has changed in the 10 years since Medscape’s first survey on what physicians would do when faced with painful choices in patient care.

A new report, Ethics 2020: Life, Death, and Painful Dilemmas, shows that physicians’ value judgments have shifted in many respects, sometimes as a result of increased regulations and fears of litigation.

End-of-life decisions

Several of the questions in the survey revolved around end-of-life decisions, and in some cases, the differences seen in just a decade were striking. One example concerned life support decisions in the context of a family’s choices.

Age also seemed to play a role in the 2020 answers to that question: Physicians younger than 45 were more likely (28%) to answer “yes” (that they would withdraw life support in that instance) than were those 45 and older (16%).

A critical care physician said, “If the family appears to have an underlying motivation that may not be in the patient’s best interest, I might be inclined to pursue a legal decision prior to withdrawing support.”

A cardiologist had a more pointed response to the question: “To me, that would be murder.”

Another example of how perspectives have changed over the past 10 years concerns whether physician-aided dying should be legal for terminally ill patients. The practice is now mandated by law in eight states and the District of Columbia, and it is mandated by court ruling in two additional states.

In 2010, 41% said “no.” That number dropped to 28% in 2020.

On legalization, a psychiatrist said, “Yes, when there is truly no hope and the quality of remaining life is too poor. We show more compassion to our sick animals than we do to our human population.”

Conversely, a neurologist answered, “No, I see younger physicians already becoming comfortable with the idea of deciding ASAP whether there is a reasonable chance of survival and then pressing for the right code status. This change would make things worse.”

Assisted death and incurable suffering

Far fewer physicians supported physician-assisted death for those who had years to live but faced incurable suffering: Thirty-seven percent said “yes,” 34% said “no,” and 29% said “it depends.”

However, support was significantly higher than it was just 2 years ago, in 2018, when only 27% supported the concept, the report authors noted.

“The shift reflects movements by many states to legalize assisted dying for the terminally ill,” Arthur Caplan, PhD, director of the division of medical ethics, New York University, said in the report. “Legalization has not been abused, so some doctors are more willing to press further beyond terminal illness as a trigger to suffering.”

Conversely, many more physicians (44% vs. 24% a decade ago) said they would provide life-sustaining therapy if the family requested it, even if the physician thought it was futile.

“Concerns over a malpractice lawsuit and potential negative patient/family online reviews are factors that play into this change,” the survey authors wrote.

Shared decision making also increased in the past decade.

Would you undertreat pain?

Primary care physicians fear the consequences of what they consider adequate pain management more than specialists do (24% vs. 17%), the survey authors noted.

Ten years ago, Medscape asked physicians whether they would undertreat a patient’s pain because of fear of repercussions or the patient’s becoming addicted: Eighty-four percent said “no,” and 6% said “yes.” The rest said “it depends.”

In 2020, the question was asked slightly differently: “Would you undertreat a patient’s pain for fear of addiction or Drug Enforcement Administration or medical board scrutiny?” This year, three times as many said “yes” (18%); 63% said “no.”

“Respondents this year talked about investigations and reprimands by medical boards, and how much they wanted to avoid that,” the survey authors wrote.


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