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Study: Few doctors assist dying patients with suicide

assisted suicide graphic

But more would if laws against practice were lifted

April 22, 1998
Web posted at: 11:09 p.m. EDT (0309 GMT)

BOSTON (CNN) -- While public opinion polls show that a majority of Americans favor legalization of physician-assisted suicide, new research finds that only about 6 percent of doctors who regularly treat terminally ill patients have helped them hasten their deaths.

However, more than one-fifth of doctors would be willing to assist patients' suicides if it were legal to do so, according to a survey of physicians reported in the latest edition of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Currently, only Oregon allows physician-assisted suicide. The survey cited in the Journal took place before Oregon voters legalized the practice.

The survey asked more than 3,100 physicians who regularly care for the dying whether they had been asked to give lethal injections or write prescriptions for drugs that would allow dying patients to kill themselves.

While 18 percent of the 1,900 physicians who responded to the survey said they had received such requests, only about one-third of those doctors, or 6 percent, said they had helped patients die.

assisted suicide reasons

"This is really not happening very often," said Dr. Diane E. Meier of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, who conducted the research. "That's the most important finding. It's a rare event."

Many of the physicians said they feel constrained from helping patients by legal proscriptions against physician-assisted suicide. But the survey showed their reticence could change if the law changed.

"Up to about 21 percent of our respondents said they would be willing to assist a patient to end their life if it were legal to do so and under the right circumstances," Meier said.

The survey found that the most common reasons patients had for requesting assisted suicide were severe discomfort, loss of dignity, fear of uncontrollable symptoms, actual pain, loss of meaning for their lives and fear of being a burden.

Many of the physicians involved in the study said they had a difficult time distinguishing between giving pain medicine to relieve suffering and administering a lethal injection -- suggesting more education is needed for physicians.

In addition, many doctors say depression complicates the picture. Patients are often inadequately treated for their depression, which can affect their ability to make a competent decision.

"The patients they described were patients who had inadequately treated pain and almost totally untreated depression," said Dr. William Wood of Emory University Medical Center. "It betrays a willingness to not treat things we can treat and leap to the patient's conclusion that there's no solution other than death."

Medical Correspondent Dr. Steve Salvatore and Reuters contributed to this report.


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