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BACKGROUND: In an environment characterized by cuts to health care, hospital closures, increasing reliance on home care and an aging population, more terminally ill patients are choosing to die at home. The authors sought to determine the care received by these patients when paramedics were summoned by a 911 call and to document whether do-not-resuscitate (DNR) requests influenced the care given. METHODS: The records of a large urban emergency medical services system were reviewed to identify consecutive patients with cardiac arrest over the 10-month period November 1996 to August 1997. Data were abstracted from paramedics' ambulance call reports according to a standardized template. The proportion of these patients described as having a terminal illness was determined, as was the proportion of terminally ill patients with a DNR request. The resuscitative efforts of paramedics were compared for patients with and without a DNR request. RESULTS: Of the 1534 cardiac arrests, 144 (9.4%) involved patients described as having a terminal illness. The mean age of the patients was 72.2 (standard deviation 14.8) years. Paramedics encountered a DNR request in 90 (62.5%) of these cases. Current regulations governing paramedic practice were not followed in 34 (23.6%) of the cases. There was no difference in the likelihood that cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) would be initiated between patients with and those without a DNR request (73% v. 83%; p = 0.17). In patients for whom CPR was initiated, paramedics were much more likely to withhold full advanced cardiac life support if there was a DNR request than if there was not (22% v. 68%; p < 0.001). INTERPRETATION: Paramedics are frequently called to attend terminally ill patients with cardiac arrest. Current regulations are a source of conflict between the paramedic's duty to treat and the patient's right to limit resuscitative efforts at the time of death.