Do we stand by our Hippocratic Oath when providing physician-assisted suicide?

Physician-assisted suicide (PAS) is a form of euthanasia in which a physician provides the patient with the pertinent information, and, in certain cases, a prescription for the necessary lethal drugs, so that the individual can willingly and successfully terminate his or her own life. The justification for PAS is the compassionate relief of intractable human suffering. Euthanasia and PAS are accepted practices in European countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg.

In the United States, however, PAS is only legal in the states of Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont, and California. At this time, euthanasia is not legal in the United States, but there is currently a vigorous debate about its legalization. In states where PAS is legalized, patients are allowed to seek PAS only if they meet certain, strict criteria, including having the mental capacity to make their own decision, and have received a prognosis of less than 6 months of life expectancy. However, the ascertaining of mental capacity raises serious concerns for terminally ill patients who possess concurrent psychiatric illnesses, or are otherwise depressed or in despair about their life circumstances, which may include their loss of autonomy and the perceived burden they might place on their families and caregivers.

Such patients are mentally incapable of making the difficult decision to end their life and therefore should require a psychiatric evaluation to include counseling prior to making a decision to engage in PAS. For patients with mental illness, PAS is even more problematic than for terminally ill patients, because patients may lack the capacity to make rational and responsible decisions. Indeed, there are sizable loopholes where our medical system lacks safeguards and similarly lacks the requirements for a thorough, pre-PAS mental health examination, family notifications, and consultations, and for the minimally necessary legal pressure required to ensure patient cooperation.

Critical role of mental health workers

Although PAS has been legalized in those five U.S. states, its support and cases have stalled in recent years, indicating serious ethical concerns, mostly because of multileveled challenges of combating and delineating cultural stereotypes, quantifying mental capacity, gauging quality of life, and deciding where to situate psychiatrists in the PAS decision.

The psychiatrist’s role is being debated. In the United States, opponents take issue with current PAS-legal state’s legislation regarding psychiatric evaluations. For example, Oregon stipulates a psychiatrist referral only in cases where a physician other than a psychiatrist believes the patient’s judgment is impaired. It’s agreed that psychiatrists have the best skill set to assess a patient’s perceptions. Other PAS-legal states require a psychiatrist or psychologist assessment before making the decision. Unfortunately, though, physicians have rarely referred these patients to psychiatrists before offering PAS as an option.

PAS opponents target standards by which concepts like “quality of life” or “contributing member of society” are judged – specifically, that “unbearable suffering” and its ramifications are ill defined – people whose lives are deemed “not worth living” (including the terminally ill) would be susceptible to “sympathetic death” via PAS that might result from PAS legalization. Opponents also argue that recognizing a suicide “right” contradicts that a significant number of suicide attempters have mental illness and need help. They say that legalizing PAS would enable mentally incapacitated people to commit the irreversible act based on their distorted perceptions without providing them the expected assistance from their profession. 1

The use of euthanasia or PAS gradually is trending from physically terminally ill patients toward psychiatrically complex patients. There are cases in which euthanasia or PAS was requested by psychiatric patients who had chronic psychiatric, medical, and psychosocial histories rather than purely physical ailment histories. In one study, Scott Y. H. Kim, MD, PhD , and his associates reviewed cases in the Netherlands in which either euthanasia or PAS for psychiatric disorders was deployed. The granted PAS requests appeared to involve physician judgment without psychiatric input.

The study reviewed 66 cases: 55% of patients had chronic severe conditions with extensive histories of attempted suicides and psychiatric hospitalizations, demonstrating that the granted euthanasia and PAS requests had involved extensive evaluations. However, 11% of cases had no independent psychiatric input, and 24% involved disagreement among the physicians.2 PAS proponents and opponents support the involvement and expertise of psychiatrists in all of this.

Psychiatrists have long contended that suicide attempts are often a “cry for help,” not an earnest act to end one’s life. Legalizing PAS tells suicidal individuals that society does not care whether they live or die – a truly un-Hippocratic stance. The stereotypes tossed around in the PAS debate, which could mean life or death, need to be unpacked with specific criteria attached, rather than preconceptions.

Autonomy of patients and implications of PAS

In the PAS debate, there are serious life concerns exhibited by terminally ill/psychiatrically ill patients over losing their autonomy and becoming a burden to their families and caregivers. Stereotypes must be deconstructed, yes, but such patients generally have been considered to be rendered, by the sum effect of their illnesses, mentally incapable of making the decision to end their lives. Addressing this order of patient life concerns generally has been the realm of social workers, psychologists, and, in the most desirable cases, psychiatrists. Therefore, even in keeping with established practice, some form of competent psychiatric evaluation should be required before considering PAS as a viable option.

The call for this requirement is backed up by a study, which reported that 47% of patients who had considered or committed suicide previously were diagnosed with psychiatric disorders, and 15% had undiagnosed psychiatric disorders.3 Also, inventories of thwarted suicide attempters reveal that most lack the conviction to end their lives, and this obverse phenomenon is backed by a study that revealed that 75% of 96 suicidal patients were found to be ambivalent in their intent to end their lives. Suicide attempters simply may be trying to communicate with people in their lives in order to test their love and care.4 This indicates that those who attempt suicide are predominantly psychiatrically ill and prone to distorted perceptions, impaired judgment, frustration, escapism, and manipulative guilt.

Suicide is abhorrent to most human beings’ sensibilities, because humanity has an innate will to live.5 It is wrong to offer patients life-ending options when they might rejuvenate or ease into death naturally. With the debilitated or elderly, PAS could violate their human rights. If the attitude that they are a burden to society persists, then a certain segment of society might be tempted to avoid their intergenerational obligations to elders, particularly those elders presenting with concurrent mental illnesses. PAS would additionally fuel that problem. This would represent a profound injustice and gross violation of human dignity, while also serving as a denial of basic human rights, particularly the right to life and care.6

Conclusion

The complex physical, psychological, and social challenges associated with PAS and the difficulty in enforcing its laws necessitate more adept alternatives. Instead of conditionally legalizing suicide, we should ease patient suffering with compassion and calibrated treatment.6,7

Terminally ill patients often suffer from depression, affecting their rationality. Adequate counseling, medical care, and psychological care should be the response to terminally ill patients considering suicide. If society accepts that ending a life is a reasonable response to human suffering that could otherwise be treated or reversed, then those with the most serious psychiatric conditions are destined to become more vulnerable. Therefore, physicians and psychiatrists should instead work harder to help patients recover, rather than participating in their quest for death.

Simplistic legal and regulatory oversight is insufficient, because the questions evoked by PAS are complicated by life, death, and ethics. Further research is needed to look into the mechanisms and morality of how psychiatrists and other physicians will make judgments and recommendations that are vital elements in developing regulatory oversight on PAS. Finally, future studies should look at which practices have been successful and which might be deemed unethical.

References

1. Clin Med (Lond). 2010 Aug;109(4):323-5.

2. JAMA Psychiatry. 2016;73(4):362-8.

3. “ The Final Months: A Study of the Lives of 134 Persons Who Committed Suicide ,” New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

4. “ Why We Shouldn’t Legalize Assisting Suicide, Part I. ” Department of Medical Ethics, National Right to Life Committee.

5. “ Working with Suicidal Individuals: A Guide to Providing Understanding, Assessment and Support ,” Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2010.

6. “ Always Care, Never Kill: How Physician-Assisted Suicide Endangers the Weak, Corrupts Medicine, Compromises the Family, and Violates Human Dignity and Equality ,” Washington: The Heritage Foundation, 2015.

7. Ann Intern Med. 2012 Jan 3;156(1 Pt 2):73-104.

Dr. Ahmed is a 2nd-year resident in the psychiatry & behavioral sciences department at the Nassau University Medical Center, New York. Over the last 3 years, he has published and presented papers at national and international forums. His interests include public social psychiatry, health care policy, health disparities, mental health stigma, and undiagnosed and overdiagnosed psychiatric illnesses in children. Dr. Ahmed is a member of the American Psychiatric Association, the American Society of Clinical Psychopharmacology, and the American Association for Social Psychiatry.

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