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Medical Ethics |

Ethical Dilemmas Encountered With the Use of Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation in AdultsEthical Eilemmas Encountered With ECMO

Darryl C. Abrams, MD; Kenneth Prager, MD; Craig D. Blinderman, MD; Kristin M. Burkart, MD; Daniel Brodie, MD
Author and Funding Information

From the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care (Drs Abrams, Prager, Burkart, and Brodie) and the Center for Supportive Care and Clinical Ethics (Drs Prager and Blinderman), Department of Medicine, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York, NY.

Correspondence to: Daniel Brodie, MD, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care, Department of Medicine, 622 W 168th St, PH 8E 101, New York, NY 10032; e-mail: hdb5@columbia.edu


Reproduction of this article is prohibited without written permission from the American College of Chest Physicians. See online for more details.


Chest. 2014;145(4):876-882. doi:10.1378/chest.13-1138
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Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) can serve as a bridge to recovery in cases of acute reversible illness, a bridge to transplantation in circumstances of irreversible cardiac or respiratory failure, a bridge to ventricular assist device therapy in select cases of cardiac failure, or a bridge to decision when the prognosis remains uncertain. Recent advances in ECMO technology that allow for prolonged support with decreased complications, the development of mobile ECMO teams, the rapidity of initiation, and the growing body of evidence, much of which remains controversial, have led to a significant increase in the use of ECMO worldwide. This increasing use of a technology that is not a destination device in itself introduces many ethical dilemmas specific to this technology. In this article, we explore some of the ethical issues inherent in the decisions surrounding the initiation and withdrawal of ECMO by raising key questions and providing a framework for clinicians. We will address extracorporeal cardiopulmonary resuscitation, the inability to bridge a patient to transplant or recovery—the so-called “bridge to nowhere”—and the significance of resuscitation preferences in the setting of continual extracorporeal circulatory support.

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