Context: The Oregon Death with Dignity Act, passed by ballot measure in 1994 and enacted in October 1997, legalized physician-assisted suicide for competent, terminally ill Oregonians, but little is known about the effects of the act on clinical practice or physician perspective.
Objective: To examine Oregon physicians' attitudes toward and practices regarding care of dying patients since the passage of the Death with Dignity Act.
Design, setting, and participants: A self-administered questionnaire was mailed in February 1999 to Oregon physicians eligible to prescribe under the act. Of 3981 eligible physicians, 2641 (66%) returned the questionnaire by August 1999.
Main outcome measures: Physicians' reports of their efforts to improve care for dying patients since 1994, their attitudes, concerns, and sources of information about participating in the Death with Dignity Act, and their conversations with patients regarding assisted suicide.
Results: A total of 791 respondents (30%) reported that they had increased referrals to hospice. Of the 2094 respondents who cared for terminally ill patients, 76% reported that they made efforts to improve their knowledge of the use of pain medications in the terminally ill. Nine hundred forty-nine responding physicians (36%) had been asked by a patient if they were potentially willing to prescribe a lethal medication. Seven percent of all survey participants reported that 1 or more patients became upset after learning the physician's position on assisted suicide, and 2% reported that 1 or more patients left their care after learning the physician's position on assisted suicide. Of the 73 physicians who were willing to write a lethal prescription and who had received a request from a patient, 20 (27%) were not confident they could determine when a patient had less than 6 months to live.
Conclusion: Most Oregon physicians who care for terminally ill patients report that since 1994 they have made efforts to improve their ability to care for these patients and many have had conversations with patients about assisted suicide.