Euthanasia & Physician-Assisted Suicide...What Are Doctors Thinking?

Have you ever wondered about the opinions of practicing doctors toward euthanasia (the doctor deliberately hastens the death of a terminally ill patient) and physician-assisted suicide (the patient hastens his or her own death, with the help of a doctor).

To achieve a better understanding of doctors' attitudes and practices regarding these highly controversial societal issues, the American Society of Clinical Oncology surveyed 3299 U.S. cancer doctors. Cancer doctors (oncologists) were questioned because in the U.S. these specialists more commonly address these issues than do other doctors.

The researchers reviewed the doctors' attitudes in relation to a theoretical patient who had terminal cancer of the prostate with unremitting pain. They were also questioned about how they felt about requests for and their participation in euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.

The results of the study were published in the Annals of Internal Medicine 2000;133:527-532.

Of the U.S. cancer doctors that were surveyed, 25% supported the use of physician-assisted suicide for a terminally ill patient with unremitting pain, while 6.5% supported euthanasia. During their career, 10.8% of the doctors surveyed had participated in physician-assisted suicide and 3.7% had performed euthanasia. The cancer doctors who believed that received adequate training in end-of-life care and those who felt they had sufficient time to talk to dying patients about "end-of-life care" issues were less likely to have performed euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide.

Finally, the study found that among U.S. cancer doctors, support for physician-assisted suicide has dropped substantially in recent years, decreasing from 45% in 1994 to 25% in this study. The doctors' support of euthanasia has similarly decreased from 22.7% in 1994 to 6.5% in this study.

The authors concluded that requests for euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide are likely to decrease as training in "end-of-life care" improves and the ability of doctors to provide this care to their patients is enhanced. It was felt that the study emphasizes the need to educate doctors about optimal pain and symptom-relieving care practices throughout their formal training and as part of their continuing medical education.


Last Editorial Review: 4/3/2002