Physicians Should “Assist in Suicide” When It Is Appropriate

Palliative care and hospice should be the standards of care for all terminally ill patients. The first place for clinicians to go when responding to a request for assisted death is to ensure the adequacy of palliative interventions. Although such interventions are generally effective, a small percentage of patients will suffer intolerably despite receiving state-of-the-art palliative care, and a few of these patients will request a physician-assisted death. Five potential “last resort” interventions are available under these circumstances: (1) accelerating opioids for pain or dyspnea; (2) stopping potentially life-prolonging therapies; (3) voluntarily stopping eating and drinking; (4) palliative sedation (potentially to unconsciousness); and (5) physician-assisted death. Patient, family, and clinicians should search for the least harmful way to respond to intolerable end-of-life suffering in ways that are effective and also respect the values of the major participants. A system that allows an open response to such cases ultimately protects patients by ensuring a full clinical evaluation and search for alternative responses, while reinforcing the need to be responsive and to not abandon
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