Poll: Many Doctors Have Wished a Patient Had Right to Die

Alexandra Wilson Pecci, July 6, 2017

Physicians increasingly support the concept of assisted death, but few have been part of one, even in states where it’s legal.

Although many physicians support the idea of assisted death, few have participated in one, and some have even declined to do so.

Those are some of the insights from a new Medscape Medical News poll, which shows that overall, the number of physicians who support the concept of assisted death appears to be on the rise. However, even in states where it is legal, few doctors have been part of an assisted death.

According to the poll of almost 300 physicians, 16% said they practice in states with a physician-assisted dying law. Yet only 17% of those physicians who practice where there’s such a law said they have used assisted dying with a patient. Thirteen percent said they'd received a request but had declined, and 70% said they'd never been asked to assist with a patient's death.

On the other hand, 62% of doctors who practice in states that do not allow assisted death reported that they had been in a situation in which they wished the patient could have been able to exercise that right. Also, 56% respondents believe the passage of physician-assisted dying laws is a positive development.

A separate Medscape ethics report published in December 2016 found that 57% of doctors said physician-assisted death should be available to the terminally ill, up from 54% in 2014 and 46% in 2010.

In the new poll, many respondents also wrote comments that reflected the struggle between patient wishes and not wanting to prolong suffering, and the physicians’ commitment to “First, do no harm.” They differentiated between withholding components of ICU care, for instance, and actually helping to end someone’s life.

"Our role is to ease the suffering of the dying patient and their family. I am acutely aware that our modalities of treatment can become modalities of torture. As such, components of ICU care should be withheld at times,” Medscape reported that Ian Hunt, MD, a pulmonologist, said.

He added, "I am very concerned that patient-assisted suicide could be misused."

Physicians also expressed concern regarding mentally ill patients.

Medscape also reported on comments from psychiatrist Edward Childe, MD. He said he was in favor of physician-assisted death, but pointed out, "I would be hesitant to prescribe it for the mentally ill because I have found that severely ill patients who have worsened with years of physical treatments have been able to become well with modified psychoanalytic therapy.”

According to the advocacy group Death with Dignity, six states have assisted death laws, and many more are considering them this year or legislative session. 

Alexandra Wilson Pecci

Alexandra Wilson Pecci is an editor for HealthLeaders Media.

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