From the Journals

Experts call to revise the Uniform Determination of Death Act


 

FROM ANNALS OF INTERNAL MEDICINE

The Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA) should be revised to clarify and harmonize procedures related to the determination of death by neurologic criteria, according to an editorial published online Dec. 24, 2019, in Annals of Internal Medicine. Proposed revisions would identify the standards for determining death by neurologic criteria and address the question of whether consent is required to make this determination. If accepted, the revisions would enhance public trust in the determination of death by neurologic criteria, the authors said.

A patient in an intensive care unit room Edwin Verin/©Thinkstock

“There is a disconnect between the medical and legal standards for brain death,” said Ariane K. Lewis, MD, associate professor of neurology and neurosurgery at New York University and lead author of the editorial. The discrepancy must be remedied because it has led to lawsuits and has proved to be problematic from a societal standpoint, she added.

Dr. Ariane K. Lewis, associate professor of neurology and neurosurgery at New York University

Dr. Ariane K. Lewis

“We defend changing the law to match medical practice, rather than changing medical practice to match the law,” said Thaddeus Mason Pope, JD, PhD, director of the Health Law Institute at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and an author of the editorial.

Accepted medical standards are unclear

The UDDA was drafted in 1981 to establish a uniform legal standard for death by neurologic criteria. A person with “irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brainstem,” is dead, according to the statute. A determination of death, it adds, “must be made in accordance with accepted medical standards.”

But the medical standards used to determine death by neurologic cause have not been uniform. In 2015, the Supreme Court of Nevada ruled that it was not clear that the standard published by the American Academy of Neurology (AAN), which had been used in the case at issue, was the “accepted medical standard.” An AAN summit later affirmed that the accepted medical standards for determination of death by neurologic cause are the 2010 AAN standard for determination of brain death in adults and the 2011 Society of Critical Care Medicine (SCCM), American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and Child Neurology Society (CNS) standard for determination of brain death in children. The Nevada legislature amended the state UDDA to identify these standards as the accepted standards. A revised UDDA also should identify these standards and grant an administrative agency (i.e., the board of medicine) the power to review and update the accepted medical standards as needed, according to the editorial.

To the extent that hospitals are not following the AAN or SCCM/AAP/CNS standards for determining death by neurologic cause, “enshrining” these standards in a revised UDDA “should increase uniformity and consistency” in hospitals’ policies on brain death, Dr. Pope said.

The question of hormonal function

Lawsuits in California and Nevada raised the question of whether the pituitary gland and hypothalamus are parts of the brain. If so, then the accepted medical standards for death by neurologic cause are not consistent with the statutory requirements for the determination of death, since the former do not test for cessation of hormonal function.

Dr. Thaddeus Mason Pope, director of the Health Law Institute at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in Saint Paul, Minn.

Dr. Thaddeus Mason Pope

The current edition of the adult standards for determining death by neurologic cause were published in 2010. “Whenever we measure brain death, we’re not measuring the cessation of all functions of the entire brain,” Dr. Pope said. “That’s not a new thing; that’s been the case for a long time.”

To address the discrepancy between medical practice and the legal statute, Dr. Lewis and colleagues proposed that the UDDA’s reference to “irreversible cessation of functions of the entire brain” be followed by the following clause: “including the brainstem, leading to unresponsive coma with loss of capacity for consciousness, brainstem areflexia, and the inability to breathe spontaneously.” An alternative revision would be to add the briefer phrase “... with the exception of hormonal function.”

Authors say consent is not required for testing

Other complications have arisen from the UDDA’s failure to specify whether consent is required for a determination of death by neurologic cause. Court rulings on this question have not been consistent. Dr. Lewis and colleagues propose adding the following text to the UDDA: “Reasonable efforts should be made to notify a patient’s legally authorized decision-maker before performing a determination of death by neurologic criteria, but consent is not required to initiate such an evaluation.”

The proposed revisions to the UDDA “might give [clinicians] more confidence to proceed with brain death testing, because it would clarify that they don’t need the parents’ [or the patient’s legally authorized decision-maker] consent to do the tests,” said Dr. Pope. “If anything, they might even have a duty to do the tests.”

The final problem with the UDDA that Dr. Lewis and colleagues cited is that it does not provide clear guidance about how to respond to religious objections to discontinuation of organ support after a determination of death by neurologic cause. “Because the issue is rather complicated, we have not advocated for a singular position related to this [question] in our revised UDDA,” Dr. Lewis said. “Rather, we recommended the need for a multidisciplinary group to come together to determine what is the best approach. In an ideal world, this [approach] would be universal throughout the country.”

Although a revised UDDA would provide greater clarity to physicians and promote uniformity of practice, it would not resolve ongoing theological and philosophical debates about whether brain death is biological death, Dr. Pope said. “The key thing is that it would give clinicians a green light or certainty and clarity that they may proceed to do the test in the first place. If the tests are positive and the patient really is dead, then they could proceed to organ procurement or to move to the morgue.”

Dr. Lewis is a member of various AAN committees and working groups but receives no compensation for her role. A coauthor received personal fees from the AAN that were unrelated to the editorial.

SOURCE: Lewis A et al. Ann Intern Med. 2019 Dec 24. doi: 10.7326/M19-2731.

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