Cancer patients embrace pioneer assisted-suicide program



The Death with Dignity program, a pioneering program that includes medically assisted suicide for competent, terminally ill adults treated at a comprehensive cancer center in Seattle, has been well accepted by patients, families, and clinicians, according to a report published online April 11 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The report details the experience in 2009-2011 with the Death with Dignity program at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, which serves all of the Pacific Northwest. The program, "designed to adhere to legal regulations, maintain safety, and ensure the quality of patient care," allows patients with a life expectancy of 6 months or less because of a diagnosed medical condition (usually cancer) to request and self-administer lethal medication prescribed by a physician.

This experience may help to inform efforts to introduce similar programs in other states. At present, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, and Vermont are all considering pertinent legislation, said Dr. Elizabeth Trice Loggers of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, and her associates.

The program’s policy – written by the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance’s medical director and approved by a majority of the medical executive committee members, as with any clinical policy – requires that patients request information about medically assisted suicide from their physicians, or that these clinicians raise the topic, to be considered for referral. Participation is entirely voluntary for medical staff and faculty members.

Every patient who is a potential participant is first assigned an advocate, a licensed social worker employed by the Alliance, who assists patients, family members, pharmacists, and physicians throughout a multistep process of participating. This advocate also tracks compliance with required documentation for the state Department of Health.

The advocate, as well as the attending physician, ensures that all potential participants are aware of alternatives to medically assisted suicide, such as palliative care and hospice care. The patient’s terminal status is verified, and if the attending physician doesn’t wish to participate, a prescribing physician and a consulting physician are chosen from a group of willing providers.

Psychosocial and psychological assessments are required to ensure the patient’s competence to make the choice of assisted suicide and to identify any depression, which would make the patient ineligible to participate. The patient’s preferences for interventions and health-care directives are documented. Grief support, legacy support, and bereavement support are offered through periodic calls and visits.

The patient and his or her family meet with the prescribing clinician and the consulting clinician to review the diagnosis, prognosis, treatment alternatives, and end-of-life issues. After a mandatory waiting period of 15 days, a written prescription is then sent to the pharmacy, and the pharmacist schedules another appointment with the patient and family to discuss preparation of the drug(s), potential side effects, and the concomitant use of prescription antiemetics.

Patients are then free to fill the prescription or not and to take the drug(s) or not, as they wish.

To date, 114 patients have inquired about the Death with Dignity program, and 44 (38%) either did not pursue the matter further or were deemed ineligible to participate.

Thirty patients (26%) have made a first oral request to initiate the process but either decided not to participate or died before completing the process. Forty patients (35% of those who made an initial inquiry) received prescriptions for lethal medication, and all 40 have died. Twenty-four chose to die by ingesting the medication (secobarbital).

Thus, only 21% of the participants actually used assisted suicide. Death with Dignity participants accounted for 2.4% of all annual deaths among patients at the Seattle Cancer Center Alliance.*

The reasons patients gave most often for participating in the assisted-suicide program were loss of autonomy (97%), inability to engage in enjoyable activities (89%), and loss of dignity (75%).

"We have not received any complaints from family members or caregivers regarding our process or the manner of death. Anecdotally, families describe the death as peaceful (even when death has taken longer than the average of approximately 35 minutes)," Dr. Loggers and her associates wrote physician (N. Engl. J. Med. 2013 April 11;368:1417-24 [doi:10.1056/NEJMsa1213398]).

"Both patients and families frequently express gratitude after the patient received the prescription, regardless of whether it is ever filled or ingested, typically referencing an important sense of control in an uncertain situation," they noted.

Opponents of medically assisted suicide have argued that legislation would disproportionately affect vulnerable populations, such as racial or ethnic minorities, low-income groups, or cognitively impaired patients. The Death with Dignity experience refutes this argument, as most participants were white, male, and well educated, the investigators said.


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