Physicians have a specific responsibility toward patients who are hopelessly ill, dying, or in the end stages of an incurable disease. In a summary of current practices affecting the care of dying patients, we give particular emphasis to changes that have become commonplace since the early 1980s. Implementation of accepted policies has been deficient in certain areas, including the initiation of timely discussions with patients about dying, the solicitation and execution in advance of their directives for terminal care, the education of medical students and residents, and the formulation of institutional guidelines. The appropriate and, if necessary, aggressive use of pain-relieving substances is recommended, even when such use may result in shortened life. We emphasize the value of a sensitive approach to care--one that is adjusted continually to suit the changing needs of the patient as death approaches. Possible settings for death are reviewed, including the home, the hospital, the intensive care unit, and the nursing home. Finally, we consider the physician's response to the dying patient who is rational and desires suicide or euthanasia.
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