The objective of our study was to determine whether, and to what degree, the ethical dimension was present in clinical practice guidelines (CPGs) on palliative sedation, and to identify the ethical issues with respect to the different forms of this practice. The purpose was purely to be descriptive; our aim was not to make any kind of normative judgements on these ethical issues or to develop our own ethical recommendations.
We performed a systematic review of CPGs on the palliative sedation of adults, focusing our analysis on the ethical dimension of these texts and the ethical issues of this practice. The study protocol is registered on PROSPERO.
In total, 36 current CPGs from four continents (and 14 countries) were included in our analysis. Generally, ethics was rarely referred to or absent from the CPGs. Only six texts contained a specific section explicitly related to ethics. Ethical issues were named, conceptualised and presented in heterogeneous, often confusing ways. It was impossible to identify the ethical issues of each form of palliative sedation. Ethics expertise was not involved in the development of most of the CPGs and, if it was, this did not always correlate with the ethical dimension of the document.
Effective cooperation between palliative care clinicians and ethicists should be encouraged, in order to integrate in particular the crucial ethical issues of continuous deep sedation until death when developing or updating CPGs on palliative sedation.