BOSTON – A new study estimates that 3.4%-6.7% of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) patients in Washington state sought to commit physician-assisted suicide over a 5-year period.
The rate is many times higher than that among cancer patients in the state, researchers found. They also discovered that ALS patients were significantly more likely than were other terminally ill people to use the deadly medication after getting prescriptions for it.
The findings appear to reflect the unique hopelessness facing ALS patients. “They’re not afforded as much denial of decline and death as are patients with other terminal illnesses,” said, a professor of psychiatry and medicine at Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, who has studied end of life in ALS patients.
“Many cancer patients, even in the final days of life, receive treatments that they hope will extend their lives,” she said in an interview after reviewing the study findings. “In contrast, treatments for ALS are minimally effective.”
Physician-assisted suicide is legal in California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Montana, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington.
A team led by, of the University of Washington, Seattle, examined the medical records of 39 ALS patients who sought medication to end their lives at three hospitals in Seattle from March 2009 to Dec. 31, 2014.
Washington’s Death with Dignity (DWD) law, which went into effect in 2009, allows physicians to prescribe lethal medication if the patient has a terminal illness and a prognosis of less than 6 months to live as judged by two physicians.
The researchers, a follow-up to a previous study ( ), at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology.
The median age of the ALS patients at symptom onset was 64 (range, 42-83), and a median of 712 days passed (range, 207-2,407) from the date of diagnosis to date of prescription for lethal medication.
The median time from prescription to death was 22 days, with at least one patient dying immediately (range, 0-386 days). All 39 patients had limb involvement, and 82%-92% had bulbar involvement, dysarthria, dysphagia, and/or dyspnea.
The researchers estimate that 3.4%-6.7% of 1,146 ALS patients in Washington who died over the time period of the study sought a physician-assisted death. The 3.4% figure assumes that the 39 patients at the three hospitals make up all the ALS patients who received medication prescriptions. The 6.7% figure assumes that all patients with neurodegenerative disease who sought DWD in the state over that period had ALS.
“Similarly, 5% (92 of 1,795) of Oregon ALS patient who died sought medication under DWD between 1998 and 2014,” Dr. Wang said. “This is slightly increased compared to the percentage during the first decade, following enactment of the Oregon law (1998-2007), when 2.7% (26 of 962) of ALS patients died using DWD medication.”
Using Washington state data, researchers also estimated that 0.6% of 73,319 cancer patients and 0.2% of 298,178 people in the state who died of all causes sought DWD over the study period.
A total of 30 (77%) ALS patients who received the deadly prescriptions chose to take them, compared with 67% of all-cause patients who took advantage of the DWD law and 60% of cancer patients.
All 30 patients died. The nine who chose to not take the prescribed medication died after a median of 76 days. The patients who did not take the medication were more likely to be married (88% vs. 69%), to be college educated (100% vs. 74%), and to use a motorized wheelchair (78% vs. 31%).
Those who chose to not take the prescribed medication were also less motivated by loss of dignity (63% vs. 93% among those who took the medication) and by being a burden on others (25% vs. 66%). They were more likely to identify themselves as religious (80% vs. 35%).
Multiple factors may explain why ALS patients made different choices regarding the deadly drugs, lead study author Dr. Wang said in an interview. “We thought that the loss of communication may have played a role based on our finding, as most patients who followed through had more substantial trouble speaking,” he said. “For the patients who ultimately did not choose to take the medication, we found more of them had stronger religious beliefs than those who did not.”
As for pain, he reported that it was not a major issue. “Only about 10% of ALS patients were worried about pain, as opposed to 30% of the general Death with Dignity patients,” he said.
Dr. Ganzini noted that some patients who seek the prescribed drugs “want reassurance that, if their quality of life becomes unbearable, they have the option of physician-assisted death. But, they continue to cope and find reasons to live. As such, they ultimately die of their disease without taking the medications. Others lose the ability to ingest the medications, often because of sudden worsening of their disease.”
No specific funding was reported. Dr. Ganzini and Dr. Wang had no disclosures.