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Deadly Business: MDs Report Experience With Assisted Suicide

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He says that physicians must decide for themselves if, when, and how they should help dying patients find relief from unrelenting suffering, and that those who choose to take concrete steps must do everything in their power to ensure as peaceful and untroubled a death as possible.

"You have to remember that there will probably be a relatively small proportion of physicians whose conscience allows them to participate in [physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia]," Nuland tells WebMD. "But I think for those people there should be training, and I think the natural trainers are anesthesiologists and clinical pharmacologists." He emphasizes that training in physician-assisted suicide should be readily available but totally voluntary, and it should not be part of the standard medical school curriculum.

A medical ethicist who was not involved in the studies but supports protection of private decisions between dying patients and their doctors tells WebMD that our society is not ready to publicly support either physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia.

"Doctors have a legal, moral, and ethical obligation to keep their patients out of pain, and if that involves giving them lethal prescriptions and risking that [patients] take them to kill themselves, that's perfectly fine. Even the U.S. Supreme Court says that's fine," says George J. Annas, JD, MPH, an Edward R. Utley professor, chairman of the health law department at Boston University School of Public Health, and a professor in the Boston University schools of Medicine and Law. "If you've got to kill your patient to keep them out of pain -- as long as you don't intend to kill them but intend to keep them out of pain -- that's the practice of medicine."

Vital Information:

  • In the state of Oregon, where physician-assisted suicide is legal, only one in six requests for lethal prescriptions are granted, while only one in 10 such requests actually results in suicide.
  • Although some had feared that those who lack social support or access to health care, including women, poor people, and minorities, would be more likely to seek physician-assisted suicide, new research shows that this is not the case.
  • In another study, researchers noted complications, such as a longer than expected time to death or failure to induce coma. In 7% of assisted suicides and 16% of euthanasia cases, patients woke up from their comas.
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