By Hilary White

RHODES, June 21, 2007 ( – is reporting on a series of studies that show a high rate of misdiagnosis and inaccuracy in patients deemed to be in a “permanent vegetative state” (PVS). The researchers say that the problem is grounds for “extreme caution” in decisions that might “limit the life chances” of patients. The pretext of a PVS diagnosis is commonly put forward by the euthanasia movement as a reason to allow euthanasia by dehydration, as in the case of Terri Schiavo. 

Researchers at the University of Liège in Belgium examined data on over 5900 patients at the intensive care unit at the university hospital. The data showed that of 356 patients diagnosed on admission as being in a vegetative state, just over half left the hospital with some degree of restored consciousness. 59% had recovered enough to obey commands.

The Belgian study said that a quarter of such patients have a good chance of recovery of a “significant proportion of their faculties”. Another showed that as many as 40% of PVS diagnosed patients were incorrectly diagnosed as having no cognitive function when in fact they had minimum consciousness.

Experts at the June 16 to 20 European Neurological Society Meeting in Rhodes said the findings showed that greater care had to be exercised with regard to end-of-life decisions. These findings match many other studies that show the PVS diagnosis is frequently inaccurate. As long ago as 1996, a study published in British Medical Journal showed that 43% of patients diagnosed with PVS do not qualify for the diagnosis.

Dr. Steven Laureys, the lead researcher in the Belgian study, said, “Our data shows that acute vegetative state is certainly not rare among patients admitted to intensive care.”

“What is important to note is that it may be transient and that the prognosis for patients with impaired consciousness depends to a great extent on the nature of the brain damage.”

The transitory nature of the PVS condition is attested by regular news features about patients that doctors had declared incurable ‘waking’ after significant time in a coma or reduced state of consciousness.

Legal expert and anti-euthanasia activist Wesley J. Smith writes that the research “should give great pause to those who advocate not supplying or quickly removing life support for people with traumatic head injury.”

Smith suggested that it should also prevent doctors from dismissing the assertions of family members that a patient has some consciousness. In their fight to save their daughter’s life, the family of Terri Schindler-Schiavo were persistently told by doctors that they were only imagining their daughter’s reactions to stimuli.

Smith writes, “What really needs to be done is to reject the notion that people with severe brain injuries are somehow less ‘human’ or are not ‘persons.’ Unless and until we do that, people in these devastated states will not be safe.”

Read related coverage:

Boy in “Hopeless” Vegetative State Awakens and Steadily Improves

Diagnosis of Persistent Vegetative State Questioned as Former Patient Speaks Out