Responses to assisted suicide requests: an interview study with Swiss palliative care physicians

BMJ Support Palliat Care. 2019 Mar;9(1):e7. doi: 10.1136/bmjspcare-2016-001291. Epub 2017 Aug 11.


Objectives: Assisted suicide in Switzerland is mainly performed by right-to-die societies. Medical involvement is limited to the prescription of the drug and certification of eligibility. Palliative care has traditionally been perceived as generally opposed to assisted suicide, but little is known about palliative care physicians' involvement in assisted suicide practices. This paper aims to describe their perspectives and involvement in assisted suicide practices.

Methods: A qualitative interview study was conducted with 23 palliative care physicians across Switzerland. Thematic analysis was used to interpret data.

Results: Swiss palliative care physicians regularly receive assisted suicide requests while none reported having received specific training in managing these requests. Participants reported being involved in assisted suicide decision making most were not willing to prescribe the lethal drug. After advising patients of the limits on their involvement in assisted suicide, the majority explored the origins of the patient's request and offered alternatives. Many participants struggled to reconcile their understanding of palliative care principles with patients' wishes to exercise their autonomy. The majority of participants had no direct contact with right-to-die societies, many desired better collaboration. A desire was voiced for a more structured debate on assisted suicide availability in hospitals and clearer legal and institutional frameworks.

Conclusions: The Swiss model of assisted suicide gives palliative care physicians opportunities to develop roles which are compatible with each practitioner's values, but may not correspond to patients' expectations. Specific education for all palliative care professionals and more structured ways to manage communication about assisted suicide are warranted.

Keywords: assisted dying; assisted suicide; decision-making; palliative care; physicians’ attitudes.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Clinical Decision-Making
  • Communication
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Drug Prescriptions / statistics & numerical data
  • Ethnicity
  • Female
  • Hospice and Palliative Care Nursing / statistics & numerical data
  • Hospitals / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Palliative Care / statistics & numerical data*
  • Physicians / psychology
  • Physicians / statistics & numerical data
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians'*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Suicide, Assisted / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Suicide, Assisted / psychology
  • Suicide, Assisted / statistics & numerical data*
  • Switzerland