Background: Responding effectively to a patient request for physician-assisted suicide (PAS) is an important clinical skill that involves careful evaluation. Clinician responses to PAS requests, however, have only been described using data obtained from clinicians.
Objective: To describe qualities of clinician-patient interactions about requests for PAS that were valued by patients and their family members.
Participants and methods: Intensive qualitative case study involving multiple longitudinal interviews conducted prospectively with patients pursuing PAS and with their family members and retrospectively with family members of deceased patients who seriously pursued PAS. The study setting was community based. Participants were recruited through patient advocacy organizations, hospices, and grief counselors. A total of 35 cases were studied: 12 were prospective and 23 were retrospective. Study procedures involved semistructured interviews that were audiotaped, transcribed, reviewed, and analyzed by a multidisciplinary research team.
Results: Three themes were identified that describe qualities of clinician-patient interactions that were valued by patients and family members: (1) openness to discussions about PAS; (2) clinician expertise in dealing with the dying process; and (3) maintenance of a therapeutic clinician-patient relationship, even when clinician and patient disagree about PAS.
Conclusions: These patient and family accounts reveal missed opportunities for clinicians to engage in therapeutic relationships, including discussions about PAS, dying, and end-of-life care. Clinicians responding to patients requesting PAS need communication skills enabling them to discuss PAS and dying openly, as well as expertise in setting reasonable expectations, individualizing pain control, and providing accurate information about the lethal potential of medications.