There is limited evidence about how legal frameworks that underpin end-of-life decisions are applied in practice. This study aimed to identify how end-of-life decisions are made and documented in emergency departments and intensive care units. The secondary aim was to explore the extent to which the legal processes featured in these decisions.
A retrospective chart audit of 85 adult patients who died in the emergency departments and intensive care units of a Queensland health service was undertaken. Quantitative data were analysed and reported using descriptive statistics. Qualitative textual data were analysed using inductive content analysis.
Nearly all admissions were unplanned (97.6%), and most patients (74.1%) were admitted from home. Only one patient had an advance health directive, although all had an eligible substitute decision-maker. The qualitative analysis revealed two main concepts – ‘healthcare professionals choreograph the end of life’ and ‘patients and families are carried on an unplanned journey’.
There was limited documentation related to the application of the legal framework in these decisions. Healthcare professionals relied on their clinical judgment about what was in the best interest of the patient. It was common for there to be a substantial effort to achieve consensus in decision-making which coincidently complied with the law.