Mercy killing in the hospital
Study says one in five nurses
help their patients die
May 23, 1996
Web posted at: 1:00 a.m. EDT
From Correspondent Jeff Levine
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A new study of nurses who take care of the dying reveals many were asked to assist in patient suicides, or hasten death in other ways.
The study, reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, shows of some 900 anonymous questionnaires returned, 19 percent said they engaged in euthanasia or assisted suicide. Seven percent had done so on their own, without a doctor's or patient's request.
Dr. David Asch of the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center said his study shows that "as public debate continues about euthanasia and assisted suicide, some critical care nurses in the United States are engaging in such practices."
But he said the incidents are rare. "These nurses had a career that averaged about nine years, during which time they may have taken care of thousands of patients, and most nurses that reported doing this at all reported doing this once or twice," Asch said.
"An underlying message here is that the environment of the critical care units is at times not sufficiently responsive to the needs of patients and their families," one nurse quoted in the research said. "It's like we never planned it, but, having developed a relationship with the patient, we both knew when it was time.
The study touched a raw nerve among nurses who say it's inaccurate. An official of the American Nurses Association Center for Ethics and Human Rights in Washington said problems with the questionnaire suggest "substantial concern about the validity of the findings."
The study might make people dependent on nursing care "fearful of their lives," said Colleen Scanlon of the American Nursing Association. (145K AIFF sound or 145K WAV sound)
Asch, a medical ethicist, says his study doesn't mean nurses are doing bad things, but that they're struggling with monumental issues. "Euthanasia is a very loaded term. If you think that euthanasia only refers to activities that are bad or in some way immoral, then that term won't apply appropriately to all of the circumstances described here."
Possible solutions could range from better pain control methods to a bigger voice for nurses in patient care.
Social attitudes toward euthanasia appear to be changing as suggested by recent court cases and ballot measures. Now the nurses' study suggests that some of them view death as an appropriate option when all else fails.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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