What is life support?

Life support replaces or supports a failing bodily function. When patients have curable or treatable conditions, life support is used temporarily until the illness or disease can be stabilized and the body can resume normal functioning. At times, the body never regains the ability to function without life support.

When making decisions about specific forms of life support, gather the facts you need to make informed decisions. In particular, understand the benefit as well as the burden the treatment will offer you or your loved one.

A treatment may be beneficial if it relieves suffering, restores functioning, or enhances the quality of life. The same treatment can be considered burdensome if it causes pain, prolongs the dying process without offering benefit, or adds to the perception of a diminished quality of life.

A person's decision to decline life support is deeply personal. When gathering information about specific treatments, understand why the treatment is being offered and how it will benefit your care.

When should treatment be started and stopped?

The distinction often is made between 2 issues: not starting treatment, and stopping treatment. However, there is no legal or ethical difference between withholding and withdrawing a medical treatment in agreement with a patient's wishes. If there were such a distinction in the clinical setting, a patient might decline treatment that could be helpful out of fear that once the treatment started, it could not be stopped.

It is legally and ethically appropriate to discontinue medical treatments that no longer are beneficial. It is the underlying disease – not the act of withdrawing treatment – that causes death.