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Oregon hospices are uneasy dealing with physician-assisted suicide

September 10, 2010

In 1995, Oregon passed a bill legalizing physician-assisted suicide. However, a new study shows a major stakeholder in terminal illness -- hospices -- rarely participate in physician-assisted suicide.

The law permits a doctor to prescribe a fatal dose of medication to a terminally ill patient who requests it as long as certain criteria are met. The survey of 55 hospice programs in Oregon found that 25% did not participate in the law at all and 27% had only limited participation, meaning that any questions to the hospice staff about the law were referred to an attending physician and that caregivers were not actively engaged with a patient who was intentionally ending his or her life. All of the hospices prohibited staff from helping patients obtain or take the fatal dose of medication to bring about death. A few programs allowed staff to be present with the patient when they took the medication.

According to the authors of the study, from Oregon State University, hospice workers found both moral and legal reasons to steer clear of the law. Some worried that any involvement in the assisted suicide might violate the law since it allows only physician assistance. Moreover, some hospice staff felt that assisting in a suicide was counter to their values of not hastening or delaying death.

But the hands-off approach is problematic because hospices should be places where patients' needs are fulfilled and where physician-assisted suicide can be carried out appropriately, the authors said.

"Indeed, most Oregon hospice programs treat deaths attributable to physician-prescribed medications differently than other deaths that they attend," the authors wrote.

The study was published Thursday in the Hastings Center Report, a publication from The Hastings Center in Garrison, N.Y.

-- Shari Roan / Los Angeles Times

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