Background: Oregon's 1997 Death with Dignity Act legalizes physician-assisted suicide. To date, information about patients who have requested this option has come from surveys of physicians. Although 78 percent of the 91 Oregonians who have died by assisted suicide were enrolled in hospice programs, there is little information about the experiences of hospice practitioners with these patients.
Methods: In 2001, we mailed a questionnaire to all hospice nurses and social workers in Oregon.
Results: Of 545 eligible hospice nurses and social workers, 397 (73 percent) returned the survey, including 71 percent of nurses and 78 percent of social workers. Since November 1997, 179 of the respondents (45 percent) had cared for a patient who requested assistance with suicide. Hospice nurses reported on 82 patients who had received prescriptions for lethal medication. Ninety-eight percent of the nurses had discussed the request with a coworker, and 77 percent of the requests had been presented at a hospice interdisciplinary conference on patient care. A very important reason for the request was to control the circumstances of death. The least important reasons included depression, lack of social support, and fear of being a financial drain on family members. Although the patients were concerned about burdening others, only 11 percent of hospice nurses rated their family caregivers as more burdened than family caregivers for other hospice patients.
Conclusions: Since assisted suicide was legalized in Oregon, many hospice nurses and social workers have provided care for a patient who requested assistance with suicide. They rated desire for control as a very important reason for these requests.
Copyright 2002 Massachusetts Medical Society