Purpose: Our aim was to describe and assess the medicinal products and doses used for euthanasia in a series of cases, identified within an epidemiological death certificate study in Belgium, where euthanasia was until recently legally forbidden and where guidelines for euthanasia are not available.
Methods: In a random sample of the deaths in 1998 in Belgium, the physicians who signed the death certificates were identified and sent an anonymous mail questionnaire. The questionnaires of the deaths classified as euthanasia cases were reviewed by a multi-disciplinary panel.
Results: A total of 22 among 1925 questionnaires pertained to voluntary euthanasia. In 17 cases, detailed information on the euthanatics (medicinal substances used for euthanasia) used was provided. Opioids were used in 13 cases (in 7 as a single drug). Time between last dose and expiry ranged from 4 to 900 min. The panel judged that only in 4 cases effective euthanatics were used.
Conclusions: In the end-of-life decision cases perceived by Belgian physicians as euthanasia, pharmacological practices were disparate, although dominated by the use of morphine, in the very late phase of dying, in doses which were unlikely to be lethal. Most physicians clandestinely engaging in euthanasia in Belgium seemed unaware of procedures for guaranteeing a quick, mild and certain death. Information on the pharmacological aspects of euthanasia should be included in the medical curriculum and continuing medical education, at least in countries with a legal framework permitting euthanasia under specified conditions.