Background: Strongly marked ideological positions on the impact of palliative care and limited hard data plague the debate on physician-assisted death.
Methods: A national cross-sectional study on the requests to hasten death (RHD) was conducted among 789 French palliative care organisations. Data were collected for all patients with RHD encountered during year 2010. Data on patients' characteristics, medical, psychological and social context, symptoms, nature of palliative management, patient's evolution and palliative care team's interpretation of the request were obtained.
Findings: A majority of centres responded and 342 teams provided descriptions of 783 RHD, 476 by a patient, 258 by relatives or close friends and 49 by the nursing staff. Cancer was the most frequent pathology (72%) and 68% of the patients had entered terminal stage. Patients rarely appeared with uncontrolled pain (3.7%), but had difficulties with feeding (65%), moving (54%), excretion (49%), or were cachectic (39%); 31% were considered to be anxio-depressive; 79% did not give physical reasons for their request; 37% of RHD were maintained and 24% fluctuated despite provision of regular follow-up by a palliative care team to 83% of all cases; 68% of patients died within a month; the interpretation of RHD by the staff was a wish for relief (69%), patient's inextricable situation (44%), actual desire not to continue living (36%) or to be helped to die (30%).
Interpretation: The large number of described cases provides, for the first time, comprehensive hard data on the evolution of RHDs in a country that has not legalised euthanasia. Whatever the way RHD are expressed, they are frequently maintained despite adequate palliative care with suitable control of pain and psychological support by specialists.
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