Literature Review

AAN publishes position statement on brain death



In a position statement published online ahead of print Jan. 2 in Neurology, the American Academy of Neurology urges uniformity in the laws, policies, and practices related to brain death. Such uniformity would reduce uncertainty and improve patient care, according to the authors. The statement, which was drafted by the AAN’s Brain Death Working Group, also supports the development of uniform policies regarding brain death and its determination within American medical institutions. Finally, the document provides neurologists with guidance for responding to requests for accommodation, including objections to the determination of brain death and to the withdrawal of organ-sustaining technology.

The AAN defines brain death as death resulting from irreversible loss of function of the entire brain. The Uniform Determination of Death Act of 1981 held that brain death and circulatory death (that is, death resulting from irreversible loss of function of the circulatory system) are equivalent, and the AAN acknowledges this equivalence.

The two current medical standards for brain death are the AAN’s 2010 Evidence-Based Guideline Update: Determining Brain Death in Adults and the 2011 Guidelines for the Determination of Brain Death in Infants and Children, which was published by the pediatric section of the Society of Critical Care Medicine, the sections of neurology and critical care of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Child Neurology Society. “The AAN is unaware of any cases in which compliant application of the brain death guidelines led to inaccurate determination of death with return of any brain function, including consciousness, brainstem reflexes, or ventilatory effort,” according to their 2019 statement.

The only jurisdiction with laws that specifically defer to these standards, however, is Nevada. The vagueness of most states’ laws has contributed to divergent legal interpretations and idiosyncratic standards for determining brain death, according to the statement.

“The AAN believes that a specific, uniform standard for the determination of brain death is critically important to provide the highest quality patient-centered neurologic and end-of-life care,” said James Russell, DO, MS, a neurologist at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington, Mass., and lead author of the position statement. “The AAN supports the development of legislation in every state modeled after the Nevada statute, which specifically defers to these current adult and pediatric brain death guidelines and any future updates.”

In addition to uniform institutional policies for determining brain death within U.S. medical facilities, the AAN calls for the development of training programs and credentialing mechanisms for physicians who determine brain death, regardless of their specialties. The association also supports research that enhances understanding of brain death and enhanced professional and public education.

While expressing respect and sympathy for requests for limited accommodation, the AAN asserts that these requests “must be based on the values of the patient, and not those of loved ones or other surrogate decision makers.” The association further observes that physicians have no ethical obligation to provide medical treatment to a deceased patient. New Jersey is the only state that legally obliges physicians to provide indefinite accommodation and continued application of organ-sustaining technology.

“The AAN believes that its members have both the moral authority and professional responsibility, when lawful, to perform a brain death evaluation, including apnea testing, after informing a patient’s loved ones or lawful surrogates of that intention, but without obligation to obtain informed consent,” according to the statement. “This position is analogous to the authority and responsibility historically granted to the medical profession to determine circulatory death without the requirement for additional informed consent.”

If a dispute about indefinite accommodation cannot be resolved, it is acceptable for a physician to withdraw organ-sustaining technology unilaterally over the objection of loved ones when legally permitted, according to the AAN. Such unilateral action is a measure of last resort and does not apply when the patient is a pregnant woman, said the authors. In the latter case, the ethical analysis should focus mainly on the welfare of the fetus.

The AAN provided financial support for the Brain Death Working Group’s efforts. The statement’s authors reported no relevant disclosures. The American Neurological Association and the Child Neurology Society have endorsed the AAN’s position statement.

SOURCE: Russell JA et al. Neurology. 2018 Jan 2. doi: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000006750.

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