Continuing, Withdrawing, and Withholding Medical Treatment at the End of Life and Associated Characteristics: a Mortality Follow-back Study



Studies on forgoing treatment often ignore treatments that are continued until death.


To investigate how often specific treatments are withdrawn or withheld before death and to describe the associated patient, physician, and care characteristics.


National mortality follow-back study in Switzerland in 2013/2014 using a standardized survey to collect information on the patient’s end of life and demographics on the physician.


A random sample of adults who died non-suddenly without an external cause and who had met the physician completing the survey (N = 3051).

Main Measures

Any of nine specific treatments was continued until death, withdrawn, or withheld.

Key Results

In 2242 cases (84%), at least one treatment was either continued until death or withheld or withdrawn. The most common treatment was artificial hydration, which was continued in 23%, withdrawn in 4%, and withheld in 22% of all cases. The other eight treatments were withdrawn or withheld in 70–94% of applicable cases. The impact of physician characteristics was limited, but artificial hydration, antibiotics, artificial nutrition, and ventilator therapy were more likely to be withheld at home and in nursing homes than in the hospitals.


Large differences exist between care settings in whether treatments are continued, withdrawn, or withheld, indicating the different availability of treatment options or different philosophies of care. While certain patient groups are more likely to have treatment withheld rather than attempted, neither patient nor physician characteristics impact the decision to continue or withdraw treatment.

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Figure 1

Data Availability

The data and the survey tool are available from the authors on request. The survey tool has been published as supplementary material with Ziegler et al. (2018).20


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We thank the Swiss Federal Statistical Office for having sampled deaths for our study and the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences (SAMS) for ensuring the anonymity of the questionnaires. We are indebted to the many physicians who participated in the study and filled in the questionnaires.

Further members of the Swiss Medical End-of-Life Decisions Study Group are as follows: Karin Faisst (St. Gallen), Felix Gutzwiller (Zurich), Samia Hurst (Geneva), Christoph Junker (Neuchâtel), Milo Alan Puhan (Zurich), Margareta Schmid (Zurich), and Sarah Ziegler (Zurich).

Funding Information

This study was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant 406740-139309, National Research Program 67 ‘End-of-Life’) and the Palliative Care Research funding program of the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences; the Gottfried and Julia Bangerter-Rhyner Foundation; and the Stanley Thomas Johnson Foundation (grant PC 03/16).

Author information

Correspondence to Matthias Bopp PhD, MPH.

Ethics declarations

Consent from the patient was waived by the Zurich Cantonal Ethics Committee (KEK-StV No. 23/13).

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they do not have a conflict of interest.

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Penders, Y.W.H., Bopp, M., Zellweger, U. et al. Continuing, Withdrawing, and Withholding Medical Treatment at the End of Life and Associated Characteristics: a Mortality Follow-back Study. J GEN INTERN MED 35, 126–132 (2020).

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  • palliative care
  • end-of-life decisions
  • withholding treatment
  • medical decision-making