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25-08-2010 | General practice | Article

Doctors’ faith may affect end-of-life care


Free abstract

Doctors with a strong religious faith are less likely to take decisions that will hasten the end of a very sick patient's life than are atheist or agnostic doctors, suggests research published in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

The findings come from the responses of nearly 3000 UK doctors to a postal survey on the care of their last patient who died, including around 1000 GPs.

Independently of their specialty, doctors who described themselves as non-religious were more likely than others to report having given continuous deep sedation until death and having taken decisions they expected or partly intended to end life.

They were also more likely to have discussed these decisions with patients they felt were able to participate in such discussions.

Acknowledging the study's limitations, not least that it was based on retrospective recall, study author Dr Clive Seale (Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry) nevertheless concludes that the relationship between doctors' values and their clinical decision making needs to be acknowledged more than it is at present.

Of note, just 14% of GPs described themselves as very or extremely religious, and as a whole they were four times more likely than palliative care specialists to report taking a decision they knew would hasten a patient's death and to support legalisation of assisted dying.

The British Medical Association said: "Decisions about end-of-life care need to be taken on the basis of an assessment of the individual patient's circumstances - incorporating discussions with the patient and close family members where possible and appropriate.

"The religious beliefs of doctors should not be allowed to influence objective, patient-centred decision-making. End-of-life decisions must always be made in the best interests of patients."

GP News is an independent clinical news service provided by Springer Healthcare Limited. © Springer Healthcare Ltd; 2010

By Caroline Price