Nearly a Third of Dutch Doctors Would Help Assisted Suicide

Euthanasia is a widely debated topic among physicians, and a study of doctors in the Netherlands found that where the process is legal, it is still divisive.

A study published in the Journal of Medical Ethics concluded that nearly 1 in 3 Dutch doctors would be prepared to help a patient with early dementia, mental illness, or who is “tired of living” to die.

The small study focused on doctors in the Netherlands, where euthanasia (also known as assisted suicide) for those who are suffering from psychiatric or psychological illnesses is legally permissible. However, this obviously presents ethical issues, and only represents a small number of patients who are helped to die in this nature. Widely publicized cases have been debated, though there is no legal right to euthanasia. The doctors there have the freedom to refuse the request on personal grounds, though this has been debated as well.

About 2,500 randomly targeted family doctors and elderly care, cardiology, respiratory medicine, intensive care, neurology, and internal medicine specialists were surveyed between October 2011 and June 2012 in order to determine what physicians believe about euthanasia and assisted suicide. The doctors were questioned about their beliefs in a variety of categories, including whether they had ever helped a patient with cancer, other physical disease, mental illnesses, early or advanced dementia, or someone without any physical ailments, but who was “tired of living” to die. The doctors who had not been in this situation were then asked if they would ever consider helping someone to die and under what circumstances.

The response rate for the survey was about two thirds of the eligible physicians that the investigators targeted. About 77 percent of those doctors had been asked at least once for help to die by a patient, and more than 9 out of 10 general practitioners had been asked. A majority (86 percent) of the physicians responded that they would consider helping a patient to die. There were about 60 percent of the physicians who had helped a patient die — of those, almost half had done so within the past 12 months.

For early stage dementia patients, about 40 percent of respondents reported they would help that person die. However, only 1 in 3 physicians would do this for someone with late stage dementia, even if that percent had written an advance directive for euthanasia.

The authors noted that a little more than a quarter (27 percent) of the doctors would be prepared to help a patient die if they had a severe medication conditions, but only 18 percent would do so in these circumstances if the patient had no other medical grounds for suffering.

Only a small portion of the physicians (7 percent) had actually helped a patient who had not had cancer or a severe physical illness to die. More than half (56 percent) of the doctors had helped a cancer patient to die, while a third of doctors had assisted someone with another physical disease.