End-of-Life Choice, Palliative Care and Counseling

Posts TaggedMassachusetts Medical Society

Dr. Marcia Angell: Ballot question to allow physician aid in dying respects patient wishes

By Dr. Marcia Angell
Boston.com
July 31, 2012

On Nov. 6, in addition to weighing in on the crucial political contests, Massachusetts voters will decide whether physicians may provide a dying patient with medication to bring about an earlier, more peaceful death if the patient chooses. On the ballot will be a Death with Dignity Act that is virtually identical to the law that has been in effect in Oregon for many years. If it passes, it will legalize physician-assisted dying, sometimes called aid in dying. (These terms are favored over the older term, physician-assisted suicide, because they distinguish it from the typical suicide in which a healthy person chooses death over life; here the patient is near death from natural causes anyway, and merely chooses the timing and manner of an inevitable death.)

There are a host of safeguards. First, the Act applies only to adults who are able to make their own decisions. It cannot be used through advance directives, nor by people with limited decision-making capacity. Second, the patient must have a terminal illness, with a life expectancy of no more than six months, as determined by at least two physicians. In addition, the patient must make two oral requests for medication to hasten death, separated by at least 15 days, and one written request, with two witnesses. By definition, the patient must be capable of swallowing the medication — usually barbiturates dissolved in a full glass of liquid — which ensures that it is voluntary. The law does not permit euthanasia, that is, the injection of a lethal medication by a physician or anyone else. If a physician believes a psychiatric condition is impairing the patient’s judgment, the doctor must refer him or her to a psychiatrist or other counselor. No physician is required to participate in assisted dying; he or she may refuse for any reason whatsoever. This is a choice, not a requirement, for both patients and physicians.

Last December, at its interim meeting, the Massachusetts Medical Society reaffirmed its long-standing opposition to physician-assisted dying — finding it “inconsistent with the physician’s role as healer and health care provider,” in the words of President Lynda Young. I will here discuss this and other arguments often made by physician opponents, and explain why I believe they are wrong, both medically and ethically.

Physicians are only healers. This sees the physician’s role too narrowly and abstractly. Yes, it is all very well to say that physicians should be healers, but suppose healing is not possible? When death is imminent and dying patients find their suffering unbearable, then the physician’s role should shift from healing to relieving suffering in accord with the patient’s wishes. This is not a matter of life versus death, but about the manner of dying, and it’s not primarily about doctors, but about patients.

Physicians should never participate in taking life. Doctors who believe this do not usually object to withdrawing life-sustaining treatment, such as a mechanical ventilator, if requested by a patient or proxy. But they believe that writing a prescription is more active, hence unethical. Here again, this argument focuses too much on physicians and not enough on patients. If we look instead at the patient’s role, we see that assisted dying requires purposeful actions on the part of the patient, whereas a mechanical ventilator could be disconnected from an unconscious patient. Even some doctors who believe assisted dying is sometimes warranted think they should not write the prescription, but outsource it to someone else. This is a form of abandonment, in which doctors prize their self-image above the patient’s needs.

Patients who request assisted dying may be suffering from treatable depression. The diagnosis of depression is difficult because the symptoms overlap with those of terminal illness, and dying naturally produces sadness. Moreover, there are no good studies of the effectiveness of therapy in this setting. Nevertheless, the act requires physicians to refer patients for counseling if they believe a patient’s judgment is impaired by depression or another psychiatric condition, and that is a common reason doctors give for denying requests in Oregon.

Permitting assisted dying will put us on a “slippery slope,” leading to abuses, such as using the law for patients who are not terminally ill or who are especially vulnerable — for example, the uninsured. The best answers come from Oregon, where the law has been used sparingly (most requests are refused) and exactly as intended. (For details, see the Oregon Health Authority’s Division of Public Health reports.) Assisted dying there has accounted for 596 deaths over 14 years, only 0.2 percent of all deaths in the most recent year. Most patients were suffering from metastatic cancer, and the prognosis was clear. Far from being vulnerable, they were relatively affluent, well-educated, and well-insured, and nearly all were receiving hospice care at the time of their request. About a third who requested medication did not use it, but kept it at hand because it provided peace of mind. No law works absolutely perfectly, but this one seems to come about as close as possible.

Good palliative care can relieve all suffering, so permitting assisted dying is unnecessary. Probably most dying patients, even when suffering greatly, would choose to live as long as possible. That courage and grace should be protected and honored, and we should put every effort into treating their symptoms. (Palliative care in Oregon is among the best in the country.) But not all suffering can be relieved. Most pain can, but other symptoms can be harder to deal with — symptoms such as weakness, loss of control of bodily functions, shortness of breath, and nausea — and the drugs to treat them often produce side effects that are as debilitating as the problems they treat. Even worse for many patients is the existential suffering. They know that their condition will grow worse day after day until their deaths, that their course is inexorably downhill, and they find it meaningless to soldier on. Why should anyone — the state, the medical profession, or anyone else — presume to tell someone else how much suffering they must endure while dying? Doctors should stand with their patients, not against them.

The Evolving State of Physician-Assisted Suicide

By Jaime Joyce
The Atlantic
July 16, 2012

Should terminally ill patients have the right to kill themselves? Voters in Massachusetts will soon decide. Last Wednesday, the Secretary of the Commonwealth announced that on November 6, 2012, when Bay State voters go to the polls to pick the next President, they will also have their say on a ballot measure called the Death with Dignity Act. If passed, the law would make Massachusetts the third state to give adults diagnosed with six months or less to live the option to end their lives using a lethal dose of doctor-prescribed medication.

Last year, volunteers from across the state began a petition drive to collect the 68,911 signatures needed to introduce the act for consideration by the state legislature; by the time they were done, they’d gotten more than 86,000 voters to sign on to show their support. Lawmakers had until the beginning of May to address the issue, but they declined to do so. In response, volunteers fanned out for a second wave of signature gathering. An additional 21,000 people from the state’s 14 counties signed on to support the Act. That’s nearly double the number needed to bypass the statehouse and bring the issue directly to voters via ballot measure.

Oregon and Washington were the first states to enact Death with Dignity laws. (In Montana, the state’s Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that physician-assisted suicide was legal, but Montana has no guidelines in place to regulate and monitor the practice.) Since 1997, when Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act went into effect, more than 900 people have received prescriptions to their end their lives. Not all have used the drugs. The Oregon Public Heath Division reports that more than 600 individuals have taken the dose, while the remainder either decided against using the prescription, or succumbed to their diagnosed illness.

In Oregon and Washington, patients must first make two requests of their doctor for medication, fifteen days apart. The patient then has to make the request in writing. In order to prevent potential abuses, patients are required to sign consent forms in the presence of two witnesses to whom they are not related. Once approved, patients must self-administer the drugs. Typically, it’s a deadly dose of Seconal, a barbiturate often prescribed by doctors to treat insomnia or to calm patients before surgery. The contents of the capsules are stirred into a glass of water or a serving of applesauce, to dull the taste. Statistics compiled and released annually by the Oregon Department of Health show that in the majority of cases, people lose consciousness within five minutes of swallowing the drugs. It can take anywhere between one minute and four days to die, but for most people death comes in just 25 minutes.

Ninety-eight percent of people who have made use of the law in Oregon are white. Eighty-one percent had cancer. Fifty-two percent were men. The median age of those who died using the law was 71. Most patients were enrolled in hospice and privately insured. They cited loss of autonomy, loss of dignity and the fact that they were “less able to engage in activities making life enjoyable” as the top three end-of-life concerns. In Washington State, where a Death with Dignity Act was approved by ballot initiative in 2008, and went into effect the following year, patients fit a similar profile. According to the latest figures released by the state, 135 people have died from the lethal prescription. The Death with Dignity Act that will go before Massachusetts’s voters this fall is modeled after laws in place in Oregon and Washington.

A survey conducted in May by Western New England Polling Institute showed that 60 percent of Massachusetts’s voters supported the rights of terminally ill patients to legally obtain and ingest life-ending drugs. Still, the measure faces tough challenges from powerful factions within and beyond the state. The Massachusetts Medical Society opposes the Act. The American Medical Association does too. “Physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as a healer,” the AMA states in its Code of Medical Ethics. “Patients should not be abandoned once it is determined that cure is impossible.”

Disability-rights activists have also spoken out against physician-assisted suicide. So has the Catholic Church. Noting a resurgence of interest in the topic and a renewed push by advocates of physician-assisted suicide to extend the practice beyond Oregon and Washington, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops last year issued an impassioned statement against the practice. In Massachusetts, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, anticipating the ballot measure, created a website, suicideisalwaysatragedy.org. “Our society will be judged by how we treat those who are ill and infirm,” Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, says in a video address that appears on the site. “They need our care and protection, not lethal drugs.”

But it’s the people of Massachusetts who will ultimately decide the law’s fate, not religious leaders, lawmakers or medical professionals. Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor of Massachusetts Medical Society’s New England Journal of Medicine, and one of the Act’s lead sponsors, puts little stock in what physicians have to say about the matter.

“I am less concerned with what doctors want than with what patients want,” Angell said in an interview that aired on WGBH, in Boston. She continued, “I think doctors sometimes have a too-narrow idea of what their own obligations are. They feel they have an obligation to extend life even when it can’t be extended significantly. And even if you have that situation, then it seems to me they have two obligations. One is to support the autonomy, the self-determination of their patients. And the other is to relieve suffering. If you can’t extend life significantly, then you must relieve suffering.”

A study released by the Health Research and Education Trust shows that Americans are living longer lives than ever before. As a result, more individuals and families will face difficult questions about end-of-life care. In 2011, the oldest Baby Boomers turned 65. By 2030, the number of Boomers between 66 and 84 years old will climb to 61 million, and six out of 10 will be managing chronic health conditions. For the elderly and others facing terminal illness, doctors have numerous ways to prolong life. Palliative and hospice care are available to help patients find peace and comfort in their final days. But there are some people who want another option, which is the right to end suffering by taking their own life at a time and place of their choosing.