In 1998, 15 terminally ill Oregon residents ended their lives with overdoses of medications supplied legally by their physicians. Many more people consider this possibility. This paper examines the ways in which the physician's response to requests for assisted suicide may change in an era of legalization, articulates some of the resulting conceptual challenges, and provides practical advice to physicians facing such requests.
In areas where it is legal, assisted dying becomes one of the many options that can be freely considered for terminally ill patients with extreme suffering. Some patients even view assisted death as a right that can be expected on demand. We consider the ethical implications of disclosing assisted dying to patients as an option of last resort and suggest that physicians working in environments where assisted dying is legal are obliged to do so. However, we conclude that physicians should not encourage patients to hasten death even when practicing in jurisdictions that allow assisted dying. Furthermore, without abandoning the model, we suggest that strict informed consent does not fully address patients' needs at this time. Physicians must also focus on patients' broader biopsychosocial concerns and help them identify solutions through empathic listening and emotional support.
We provide a framework and vocabulary for physicians to use when responding to requests for assisted suicide. Physicians should clarify the request, explore and address the patient's concerns, achieve a shared understanding of the goals of treatment, search for less harmful alternatives, express to the patient what they are willing to do, discuss the relevant legal issues, and share their decision making with colleagues.