We are dedicated to helping our patients, but there are limits to what we can do to help.
A clinic patient of mine was dying of pancreatic cancer. He was as orange as a pumpkin and had an implantable morphine pump for pain. He was in palliative care and hospice, and regardless of medications to help alleviate his symptoms, he was miserable.
His suffering was unbearable. He wanted nothing more than to pass away sooner, in peace, and no longer be in pain.
“‘This is not living,’ he told me. ‘I am just waiting to die.’”
— Kristen Fuller, MD
He voluntarily stopped eating and drinking, refused a feeding tube, and eventually developed severe psychosis. I consulted with his medical team members about offering him “death with dignity,” but they were uncomfortable with this.
He passed away on day 12 by starving himself. His loved ones were beyond scarred by this experience.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the profound tragedy of people dying alone in hospitals, suffering and scared, without the comfort of their loved ones. The pandemic demonstrated modern medicine’s limits in relieving suffering and granting someone peace.
How can we best serve our patients in such situations?
Ways to help patients at the end
Medical aid in dying—also known as death with dignity—is the voluntary act (for both physician and patient) to help end the suffering of a mentally competent adult patient who is terminally ill with less than a 6-month life expectancy (hospice-eligible). The patient has the right to ask for a prescription medication they can self-ingest to die peacefully.
Individuals who want this end-of-life care option tend to be offended when it’s called “assisted suicide,” because they desperately want to live, but are going to die whether or not they utilize this avenue.
The Journal of Palliative Medicine published peer-reviewed clinical criteria for “physician aid in dying”—not assisted suicide. The term “physician-assisted suicide” is archaic and stigmatizing to physicians and patients who have experienced death with dignity.
In the US, death with dignity or medical aid in dying are explicitly distinguished from euthanasia.
Euthanasia, also called mercy killing, is administering a lethal medication by another human being to an incurably suffering patient.
It may be voluntary (requested by the patient) or involuntary. Euthanasia is illegal in the US, but voluntary euthanasia is legal in Colombia, Belgium, Canada, and Luxembourg, and is decriminalized in the Netherlands.
History and guidelines
Medical aid in dying was first passed as legislation in Washington state in 2008, and has since become available for patients in Washington, DC, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington.
Multiple safeguards are in place to prevent cases of abuse or coercion.
The patient must be deemed competent, two physicians must authorize the medication, and there’s also usually a 15-day waiting period between the first and second doctor’s approval before a medication is authorized.
Suppose the patient chooses to take the medication after authorization. They can ingest the pills at their chosen time, choosing the manner and location of their death—one last act of control in the face of a debilitating illness.
What does the AMA say?
The AMA adopted a neutral position on death with dignity in 2019, affirming for the first time that “physicians can provide medical aid in dying according to the dictates of their conscience without violating their professional obligations.”
The Association stipulated that physicians who participate in medical aid in dying adhere to professional and ethical obligations, as do physicians who decline to participate.
Other well-known national medical associations that have taken a neutral stance on death with dignity by withdrawing their opposition to the practice include the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, and the American Academy of Neurology.
According to the Oregon Health Authority, approximately one-third of patients who receive prescription medication to pursue death with dignity in Oregon do not take the medication.
However, they are said to be relieved that they are in control at the end of their life, which helps alleviate some anxiety about potential suffering in their last days. Each patient should be empowered to make end-of-life care decisions based on their unique culture, beliefs, and spiritual values.
“The power should be in the patient’s hands.”
— Kristen Fuller, MD
Hopefully, we can be conduits to give our patients respect, autonomy, and privacy during their last days.
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