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March 27, 1996

Physician-Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia in Washington StatePatient Requests and Physician Responses

Author Affiliations

From the Medical Service (Drs Back and Pearlman) and Geriatric Research Education and Clinical Center (Dr Pearlman), Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Health Care System, Seattle, Wash; the Departments of Medicine (Drs Back, Wallace, and Pearlman and Ms Starks) and Medical History and Ethics (Dr Pearlman), University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle; and the Department of Health Services, University of Washington School of Public Health, Seattle (Dr Pearlman).

JAMA. 1996;275(12):919-925. doi:10.1001/jama.1996.03530360029034

Objectives.  —To estimate how often physicians receive requests for physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia and to describe a case series of patient requests for physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia, including physician responses to these requests.

Design.  —A mailed, anonymous two-part questionnaire.

Participants.  —A total of 828 physicians returned questionnaires sent to 1453 potential respondents, for a response rate of 57%. Questionnaires were mailed to a random sample (25%) of primary care physicians and all physicians in selected medical subspecialties in Washington State.

Main Outcome Measures.  —The frequency of explicit patient requests for physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia reported by physicians and individual case descriptions of patient characteristics, physician perceptions of patient concerns, and physician responses to patient requests.

Results.  —In the past year, 12% of responding physicians received one or more explicit requests for physician-assisted suicide, and 4% received one or more requests for euthanasia. These physicians provided 207 case descriptions. The diagnoses most often associated with requests were cancer, neurological disease, and the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). The patient concerns most often perceived by physicians were worries about loss of control, being a burden, being dependent on others for personal care, and loss of dignity. Physicians provided assistance more often to patients with physical symptoms. Physicians infrequently sought advice from colleagues. Of 156 patients who requested physician-assisted suicide, 38 (24%) received prescriptions, and 21 of these died as a result. Of 58 patients who requested euthanasia, 14 (24%) received parenteral medication and died.

Conclusions.  —Patient requests for physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia are not rare. As perceived by physicians, the most common patient concerns at the time these requests are made are nonphysical. Physicians occasionally provide these practices, even though they are currently illegal in Washington State. Physicians do not consult colleagues often about these requests. These findings raise the question of how to ensure quality in the evaluation of patient requests for physician-assisted death.(JAMA. 1996;275:919-925)