— Sometimes a “natural death” is the best option for everyone
by Angela Morrow, RN
A do-not-resuscitate order (DNR) is a legally binding order signed by a physician at a patient’s request. Its purpose is to let medical professionals know you do not want to be resuscitated if you suddenly go into cardiac arrest or stop breathing.
People who are chronically ill often regard a DNR as a graceful way to leave the world on their terms. The details of a DNR are usually discussed at the time of admission to a hospital, nursing facility, or hospice program.
This article explains what resuscitation means, its side effects, and its survival rates. It also describes the rules that often frame do not resuscitate orders, how to make a DNR order work for you, and some of the ethical issues worth considering.
What DNR Means
You may have seen TV shows set in hospitals in which a patient in cardiac arrest gets cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), comes back to life, and is back to their old self in no time. In fact, being resuscitated is not so simple and can be dangerous in its own right.
Procedures used to resuscitate someone include:
- Chest compressions: When a person’s heart stops beating, the heart cannot pump blood to the rest of the body, including the brain and lungs. Pushing down on the chest repeatedly can help keep blood flowing throughout the body until heart function is restored.
- Intubation: When breathing becomes difficult or impossible due to an illness or injury, a patient may be intubated. This involves inserting an endotracheal tube through the mouth and into the airway. The tube is then connected to a ventilator, which pushes air into the lungs.
- Cardioversion: Cardioversion is used to correct abnormal heart rhythms, including arrhythmias and atrial fibrillation (also known as AFib). This may be done using a set of paddles to deliver an electrical shock to the heart or via medication.
- IV medications: Medications that are sometimes used in the case of cardiac arrest include epinephrine, amiodarone, vasopressin, and atropine sulfate. These are “crash cart medications,” so named because they can be found on the wheeled cart that medical professionals use during an emergency resuscitation.
For a patient in cardiac or respiratory arrest, a DNR states that none of these tactics will be used.1
Respiratory vs. Cardiac Arrest
The difference between respiratory and cardiac arrest is that respiratory arrest patients still have a beating heart that’s pushing blood around the body. Cardiac arrest patients do not. In both cases, though, a patient is unconscious and not breathing. Respiratory arrest will always lead to cardiac arrest if nothing is done to treat it.2
Resuscitation Side Effects
It’s important to realize that even if you are successfully resuscitated, you may end up with significant physical injuries as a result. For example, because the chest must be compressed hard and deep enough to pump the blood out of the heart, it can lead to broken ribs, punctured lungs, and possibly a damaged heart.3
Those who are resuscitated may also suffer brain damage. This can occur due to lack of blood flow to the brain followed by abnormal cell activity when blood flow to the brain is restored. Generally, the risk increases the longer the duration of CPR.4
Resuscitation Survival Rates
Survival statistics for resuscitation vary widely, partly due to the fact that there are many variables involved, including the age and health status of the patient and whether CPR was performed in a hospital, where emergency support is available.
A 2021 review looked at research published from 2008 onward that focused on the outcome of CPR in patients age 70 and older following in-hospital cardiac arrest (IHCA) and out-of-hospital cardiac arrest (OHCA). Survival rates were 28.5% and 11.1%, respectively.5
Meanwhile, a Danish study found that 30-day survival rates among nursing home residents who received CPR after OHCA was only 7.7%6
It’s a painful irony that most people who suffer cardiac arrest are not in a hospital, nursing facility, or hospice program. About 70% of them are at home, and the vast majority (about 90%) die. CPR can double or triple a person’s chance of survival.7
Types of Orders
A DNR order is sometimes referred to by other names, though the directive not to resuscitate someone is the same. Two other names for these orders are:
- No code: In a hospital, an order to withhold resuscitation is sometimes called a “no code” to distinguish it from a “full code” or “code blue,” both of which mean every effort should be made to resuscitate a patient.
- Allow natural death (AND) orders: While a DNR order simply states that no attempts should be made to restart breathing or restart the heart if it stops, an AND order ensures that only comfort measures are taken.8 This would include withholding or discontinuing resuscitation, artificial feedings, fluids, and other measures that would prolong a natural death. These orders are typically used in hospice settings or elsewhere for terminally ill patients.
A study on DNRs and ANDs finds “healthcare providers should address the concept of natural death, provide comprehensive information, and help patients and families to overcome the barriers.”8
DNR Order Rules
The application of DNR orders varies from state to state, especially regarding out-of-hospital (meaning ambulance) care. Some states have standardized forms for DNR orders; if the order is not written on that specific form, it cannot be honored. Other states are less regimented and honor any type of clear DNR order.
Many states allow emergency responders to follow DNR orders written to other care providers, even if they aren’t written on standardized forms. For instance, in New York State, paramedics and emergency medical technicians are usually allowed to follow DNR orders written for the staff of a nursing home.
They also may be able to honor orders written for patients getting nursing care at home if the home care nurse has a copy of the DNR order in hand.1 Each state is different, and municipalities may differ within each state.
Regardless of the format or the venue, DNR orders almost always follow some of the same general rules; they have to in order to be valid. DNR orders must:
- Be written by a doctor rather than verbalized.9 There are exceptions to this rule, such as an emergency medical service physician ordering an ambulance crew to withhold resuscitation via the radio or a registered nurse taking an order from an admitting doctor over the phone.1 Generally, there are safeguards for these exceptions to make sure the order is validated later.
- Be signed by a doctor. In those cases where orders were taken by a nurse over the phone, states usually set a deadline for the doctor to physically verify and sign the order.
- Include the patient’s name as well as the date. Depending on the state, orders may expire after a certain amount of time or there may be a deadline for the physician to follow up. Even if a DNR order doesn’t expire, a particularly old order may prompt a caregiver to revisit the decision.
Diligence on DNR Orders
A doctor writes a DNR order only after conferring with the patient (if this is possible), the patient’s appointed representative, or members of the patient’s family.
Making a DNR Order Work for You
If you opt for a DNR order, here’s what you can do to ensure your wishes are respected:
- Keep the physical order on hand and display it wherever paramedics might find you. Make a point to tell them about the order when they arrive. It’s a good idea to have more than one copy available and displayed, as well as a copy to bring with you to the hospital.
- If you are traveling, ask your traveling partners to keep a copy of your DNR order on them at all times.
- Consider wearing a piece of medical jewelry to alert others of your intentions. MedicAlert Foundation provides jewelry designed specifically for patients with DNR orders. The foundation keeps a copy of the order on file and can fax it to anywhere in the world.
DNR Expresses Limits
A DNR order addresses the issue of CPR, but it does not include instructions for other treatments, such as pain medication or nutrition.10
Ethical Complications of DNR Orders
The inconsistent application of DNR orders means some patients may get less than optimal care once providers are aware of the presence of a DNR order.11 It’s important to remember that a DNR order is not an order to withhold all treatment. It’s an order not to resuscitate.
Even the mere mention of “DNR” can spawn a wide range of reactions, many of them emotionally charged. Discuss the options with your doctor and your family when everyone is calm and rational—and hopefully sooner rather than later.
Why a Patient Would Choose to Have a DNR Order
People with a terminal disease, such as advanced cancer or dementia, may not want CPR. A poor prognosis lowers the likelihood of survival, with a higher risk of heart, lung, and brain damage if resuscitation is attempted. Views on CPR within the medical community are ever-evolving too, with some professionals revisiting guidelines on how and why resuscitation should be considered.12
A do-not-resuscitate order instructs healthcare providers to refrain from cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if a patient’s breathing stops or if the patient’s heart stops beating. It can also pose a dilemma, but one worth considering, especially in the context of your health (or the health of a loved one).
Here’s why: CPR requires the heart to be compressed hard and deep enough to pump the blood out of the heart. As such, it can lead to broken ribs, punctured lungs, and possibly a damaged heart. Those who are resuscitated may also suffer brain damage.
These actions may be too much for someone in frail health. If you wish to explore a DNR order, it’s important to know that the orders vary from state to state. Be sure to investigate the rules in your state before proceeding.
A Word From Verywell
Understandably, loved ones often have difficulty talking about a DNR order and may feel they are “giving up” on their loved one. You can take charge of your end-of-life plans while you’re still able to do so, and investigate the rules governing DNR orders in your state. Keep in mind that even if you get a DNR order, you have the right to change your mind, revoke the order, and request CPR.10
Frequently Asked Questions
- How do you get a do-not-resuscitate order?
You can get one from a hospital, nursing home, or hospice program. Most states have standard forms that you can download online.
- Who can sign a do-not-resuscitate order?
A doctor must sign a DNR order with the consent of the patient or the patient’s healthcare proxy or designated power of attorney.9
- Can a DNR be ignored?
The Patient Self Determination Act (PDSA) requires that the wishes of an individual and any existing advance directives be honored in the United States. However, providers do occasionally disregard a DNR due, for example, to lack of communication.13 It’s also possible that an existing DNR is honored but providers fail to confirm with a patient or their representative.14
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