Background: Physician-assisted suicide was legalized in Oregon in October 1997. There are data on patients who have received prescriptions for lethal medications and died after taking the medications. There is little information, however, on physicians' experiences with requests for assistance with suicide.
Methods: Between February and August 1999, we mailed a questionnaire to physicians who were eligible to prescribe lethal medications under the Oregon Death with Dignity Act.
Results: Of 4053 eligible physicians, 2649 (65 percent) returned the survey. Of the respondents, 144 (5 percent) had received a total of 221 requests for prescriptions for lethal medications since October 1997. We received information on the outcome in 165 patients (complete information for 143 patients and partial for on an additional 22). The mean age of the patients was 68 years; 76 percent had an estimated life expectancy of less than six months. Thirty-five percent requested a prescription from another physician. Twenty-nine patients (18 percent) received prescriptions, and 17 (10 percent) died from administering the prescribed medication. Twenty percent of the patients had symptoms of depression; none of these patients received a prescription for a lethal medication. In the case of 68 patients, including 11 who received prescriptions and 8 who died by taking the prescribed medication, the physician implemented at least one substantive palliative intervention, such as control of pain or other symptoms, referral to a hospice program, a consultation, or a trial of antidepressant medication. Forty-six percent of the patients for whom substantive interventions were made changed their minds about assisted suicide, as compared with 15 percent of those for whom no substantive interventions were made (P<0.001).
Conclusions: Our data indicate that in Oregon, physicians grant about 1 in 6 requests for a prescription for a lethal medication and that 1 in 10 requests actually result in suicide. Substantive palliative interventions lead some--but not all--patients to change their minds about assisted suicide.