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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Why I'm Bored With the Debate About Physician Assisted Suicide

by Drew Rosielle (@drosielle)

I’m a little bored of all the discussion about physician-assisted suicide. Mostly it’s because legalizing PAS is going to have zero impact on nearly all of my patients, and I think the significant amount of press and energy it gets is a distraction from other things which actually would improve the lives (and deaths) of the patients and families I care for as a palliative doc.

The last time I blogged about PAS was part of my euphemisms series last year, when I elaborated why I did not like terms like ‘assisted death’ or ‘aid-in-dying’ and prefer ‘assisted suicide’ and ‘euthanasia’ (or ‘voluntary active euthanasia’ to be super-clear) instead. I appreciate that I am on the losing side of history here, people already are and are going to increasingly call PAS some variation of physician/medical - assisted/aid-in - death/dying but I’m still sticking with PAS for now. I’ll also note that the Canadians essentially proved my complaint correct last year, in that their Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) law includes both PAS and euthanasia, underlining my point that the ‘assisted death’ locutions are imprecise and potentially confusing, and that 'PAiD' is no simple replacement for the much clearer 'PAS'.

In the comments on my post last year someone intimated I must not support legalization of PAD and that’s why I want to stick with the label “PAS.” Well, I don’t like PAD or PAS, but it’s also fair to say I have a variety of thoughts and emotions about PAS and its legalization that aren’t easy to neatly summarize. I’ve always felt uncomfortable with it, but I also never thought to myself Dr Tim Quill should lose his medical license or be in prison. In fact the only thought about it I have which is clear and unambiguous is my leading thesis above, that the attention paid to it completely outsizes its clinical relevance to the vast majority of our patients with serious illness, which approaches zero.

I’m thinking about all this because a recent Annals of Internal Medicine has the American College of Physician’s revised position paper on the ethics and legalization of PAS, along with several editorials, and a nice summary of 20 years of Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act (DWDA) data (Table of Contents here). If you care about end-of-life issues or the debate around PAS, get informed and read this issue - it’s good.

The ACP paper is a well-written, cogent discussion of why the ACP opposes legalization of assisted suicide, and does a far better job than I could of outlining the arguments against it. I agree with a lot of the arguments: patients seek PAS not to actually relieve physical suffering but instead for existential reasons; it is unwise to medicalize existential suffering especially with the drastic and irreversible means of lethal ingestion, and legalizing PAS can undermine the doctor-patient relationship.


The reality is that PAS legalization is unfolding in the US as a human rights/civil rights issue, not really a medical issue, and honestly what us doctors think about it doesn’t seem to matter much.

Large-scale organized medicine in the US (eg the AMA, ACP, etc) is solidly against legalized PAS. (Perhaps this is changing – the California Medical Association changed its position to neutrality prior to the its legalization in CA.) Most palliative clinicians (I think) are against it (obviously there is an important minority in our community who are very much for PAS legalization). (I've not seen good data on this in the US, but I believe it to be true; in the UK when it was polled many years back, palliative docs were the group of docs most opposed to legalization.) But the voters and legislative bodies who are legalizing PAS are not persuaded by our objections. The broad, tangled, clinical/therapeutic, and professional concerns many of us have about it aren’t a persuasive concern, because PAS is seen more through the lens of an individual civil right, and not as a medical issue.

Frankly, PAS remains pretty popular with the public (although I wonder if the public actually understand what it is and isn’t), and I think in the US the wave of legalization is going to continue state by state in the coming decades, and organized medicine is not going to stop this because we’ve already lost the argument to the realm of ‘rights.’ Rights are important, of course (!), but I really want to emphasize this point because I think that when people like me think about PAS we think about our suffering patients and our aspirations to help them find meaning and comfort in their dying days, and all those clinical, therapeutic things we do in hospice/palliative care and medicine to care for patients nearing their deaths, and none of that matters much in the legal debate because the focus is on a person’s right to autonomy and control.

So I’ve been trying to accept and anticipate that this is going to happen, and asking myself how I am going to react to it, and also trying to understand PAS with actual data about actual patients (as opposed to grand pronouncements and philosophical noodling), which thankfully we have, because the Oregon PAS experiment has been highly investigated.

Looking at the data (in the Oregon DWDA paper above and other publications) I have several major observations.

1) The proponents of PAS who claim it is an important option to prevent physical suffering at life’s end should kindly stop making such claims. The data over the year has clearly supported the observation that most patients seek PAS for what I think are best characterized as existential reasons: concerns for loss of autonomy and function, etc. Patients who would (quite literally) rather die than go through the dying process which indeed strips one of autonomy and function. PAS is not, on the ground, actually being used to mitigate unrelenting physical suffering in any major fashion. The proponents of PAS should defend it and promote it for what it actually is, and not use scare language to suggest to people they need this option to make sure they don’t needlessly suffer as they die.

2) The opponents of PAS who claim that it will lead to a slippery slope (it will be used by doctors or families to force poor, disabled, or otherwise vulnerable people into killing themselves) need to stop making that claim, at least without the qualification that that has not happened in Oregon. I.e., we have nearly 20 years of data showing that a well-designed and implemented PAS program can exist without any appreciable slippery slope. I’m not saying that there couldn’t ever be a slippery slope, just that we now have lots of data showing that it is not inevitable. All human institutions and programs like are open to abuse and misuse – the Oregon PAS program and medicine as a whole in fact relies on good faith participation which can be abused. But it hasn’t, at least in any sort of measurable, systematic way. In fact, the people who participated in PAS in Oregon are overwhelmingly insured, white, well-educated, and dying of things like cancer, ALS, and organ failure (not, eg, quadriplegia). (Oregon is a very white state, but still the patients receiving PAS are disproportionately white, but one is curious as to what the data will show in California in the coming years.)

3) I do myself have deep concerns that PAS will undermine the profession, as it transforms doctors from healers to, well, something else. However, I have had to face the reality that this has not apparently happened. I don’t have any data for this one, but I know doctors in Oregon, and I’d have a hard time making any sort of claim to the idea that 20 years of PAS in Oregon has hurt the profession, or health care as a whole there. I still think it could hurt the profession, but like in the slippery slope discussion above, I have to admit that it in reality has not, at least in Oregon, and be honest with myself that my objection was probably my own dislike of PAS and bull-headed professional desire to help dying patients find meaning and solace, even in death. When you're getting emotional at the bedside, you always want to ask yourself "Is this my shit?" and if it is you try to check it. The same, perhaps, with emotional policy decisions.  I really recommend reading this reflection piece in JAMA Internal Medicine written by two Canadian doctors helping a patient die under the new Canadian MAID law in which they describe reluctantly participating in the death of one of their patients. It's a thoughtfully written piece, among other things one senses that this 'assisted death' was in fact full of meaning and connection. Additionally, I have a hard time reading the piece and concluding that these doctors' actions are going to destroy our profession. I know I feel a patient wanting aid-in-dying as a sort of professional failure, but reading this reflection has forced to me acknowledge that I may need to just get over myself there.

4) Finally, the Oregon data continue to show that PAS is incredibly rare. About 0.19% of all deaths in Oregon are with PAS, and while it’s impossible to clearly define what the denominator should be, by one measure PAS accounts for 0.54% of potentially eligible deaths. Over ~20 years in Oregon the number of PAS deaths has risen with population growth but is not growing and growing. Some additional patients get lethal prescriptions and never use it. Literally, PAS is an end of life option for the 1%.

Which is exactly my point.

Mass legalization of PAS is not going to be a catastrophe, but it’s also going to do approximately nothing for literally 99% of our patients at the ends of their lives. And this is why I’m a little bored with the whole thing. I’m not oblivious to the fact that PAS has cultural significance (presumably both positive and negative) beyond its actual impact on end of life care, but the idea you come across all the time both implicitly and explicitly that PAS is an important option to have, I just don’t buy. I’m not saying citizens should be denied this option, and undoubtedly access to PAS is very important to the few patients who choose it, it's just that it seems like a big distraction from far more important work that needs to happen.

Because, there are some actually, really, truly, important things that could happen in this country which would immediately, measurably, improve the lives and deaths and our patients with serious or terminal illnesses.

It’s a cold, grey December afternoon in Minnesota as I write this, but off the top of my head, here are a handful of things that would actually, really, truly improve our patients’ and families’ lives with serious or terminal illnesses:
  • Universal, affordable health insurance, including drug coverage.
  • Universal paid sick leave, including paid family care leave so someone can take 4 months off to care for their dying sister at home without losing their job, their health insurance, and their mortgage.
  • Earlier and more routine access to palliative specialist teams (and depending where you live psychiatrists, geriatricians, and addiction medicine programs).
  • Widely available, home-based palliative/advanced illness management programs which include nurses, doctors, social workers, aides, chaplains, therapists which can provide active disease management at home, alongside palliative symptom management, goals of care planning, and emotional, existential, and grief support.
  • Better, universal primary palliative care training such that primary care providers and key specialists have adequate skills in having goals of care / serious illness conversations.
  • A hospice benefit which didn’t make many of our patients choose between hospice and many commonly used palliative treatments like chemotherapy, blood products, noninvasive ventilation, etc.  
  • A hospice benefit which paid for room and board at a facility.
  • Drug innovation, especially for analgesics which are safer and better tolerated.
There are many more things, big and small, which will truly improve the lives and deaths of our patients and families and PAS isn't one of them.

Drew Rosielle, MD is a palliative care physician at University of Minnesota Health in Minnesota. He founded Pallimed in 2005. You can occasionally find him on Twitter at @drosielleFor more Pallimed posts by Drew click here.

Photo Credit: Boredom score by Flickr user smartfat, under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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