Objective: To determine attitudes among surgeons in Australia to assisted death, and the proportion of surgeons who have intentionally hastened death with or without an explicit request.
Design: Anonymous, cross-sectional, mail-out survey between August and November 1999
Participants: 683 out of 992 eligible general surgeons (68.9% response rate).
Main outcome measures: Proportion of respondents answering affirmatively to questions about administering excessive doses of medication with an intention to hasten death.
Results: 247 respondents (36.2%; 95% CI, 32.6%-39.9%) reported that, for the purpose of relieving a patient's suffering, they have given drugs in doses that they perceived to be greater than those required to relieve symptoms with the intention of hastening death. More than half of these (139 respondents; 20.4% of all respondents; 95% CI, 17.4%-23.6%) reported that they had never received an unambiguous request for a lethal dose of medication. Of all respondents, only 36 (5.3%; 95% CI, 2.9%-6.1%) reported that they had given a bolus lethal injection, or had provided the means to commit suicide, in response to an unambiguous request.
Conclusions: More than a third of surgeons surveyed reported giving drugs with an intention to hasten death, often in the absence of an explicit request. However, in many instances, this may involve the use of an infusion of analgesics or sedatives, and such actions may be difficult to distinguish from accepted palliative care, except on the basis of the doctor's self-reported intention. Legal and moral distinctions based solely on a doctor's intention are problematic.