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New Report Shows Implementation of California End of Life Option Act Improving

By Ashley Cardenas, Policy and Program Director, Compassion & Choices

The 2017 data from the California Department of Public Health about the End of Life Option Act clearly demonstrates Compassion & Choices’ increasing success in educating both healthcare providers and the public about the law since the department’s 2016 report.

Terminally ill Californians utilized the law about twice as much in 2017 as they did during the first seven months after the law took effect in 2016. This outcome is exactly what we at Compassion & Choices anticipated based on our experience in helping to implement laws in other states with over 40 years of collective experience in medical aid in dying.

Over the course of 2017, 577 individuals received prescriptions under the Act vs. 191 from June 9, 2016 (the day the law was implemented) thru Dec. 31, 2016; 374 of people in 2017 (including 11 who received their prescription in 2016) vs. 111 during the last seven months of 2016 were able to bring a peaceful end to their unbearable suffering and die on their own terms by ingesting the prescribed aid-in-dying medications.

Despite this increase, the rate for those who died following ingestion of aid-in-dying medication was only .135% of the 269,044 deaths in California for 2017.  

The demographics of those who utilized the law in 2017 were very similar to those who did so in 2016. In 2017, nine of 10 people (90.4%) who utilized the law were 60 or older. The average age was 74 years old. While most (68.5%) were dying of some form of cancer, neurological disorders like Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and Parkinson’s accounted for the second-largest underlying illness grouping (9.4%). Further:

As we’ve seen in the 2016 prior report and mirroring the experience in other states, the vast majority (83.4%) of individuals were receiving hospice or palliative care services at the time of their death. This data confirms once again that medical aid in dying is one option on the end-of-life care spectrum and complements other palliative care services.

In fact, the Los Angeles Times reported last August, “It [the End of Life Option Act] really has created a new standard for how we ought to be helping people at the end of life,” said Dr. Neil Wenger, director of the UCLA Health Ethics Center. The Los Angeles Times also noted: “Sometimes doctors end up adjusting patients’ medicines or treatments because patients hadn’t before expressed how much pain they were in. Some patients decide to go on hospice earlier than they would have otherwise.”

Since the law’s passage, physicians across the state have pursued the range of professional education and training available from Compassion & Choices on the practice so they can respond to their patients’ questions and needs related to medical aid in dying.

In 2017, 241 unique physicians wrote the 577 prescriptions compared to 173 physicians who wrote the 191 prescriptions during the last seven months of 2016. These statistics signal that physicians are talking to their patients, and their patients are being thoughtful in considering the use of the Act and ultimately deciding on the end-of-life care that most closely aligns with their personal beliefs and preferences. That is exactly what the law’s legislative champions and Compassion & Choices promised to the people of California.