Secobarbital, used as a lethal prescription in physician-assisted suicide.
When Washington's Death With Dignity Act went into effect in 2009, an oncologist at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance began a study of patients who inquired about physician-assisted suicide.
The new study by Elizabeth Loggers, MD, PhD, published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine, shows that physician-assisted suicide is rarely used. Only a small number of Cancer Care Alliance patients -- 114 in the first 21 months -- talked to their physician about using the law. Of those, 74 either decided not to pursue it or died before they could.
Forty patients received a prescription, though only 24 of them used the drug, representing 0.02 percent of annual patient deaths there. Those deaths by Cancer Care Alliance patients represent about 15 percent of the state’s 255 Death With Dignity deaths in the same time frame, reports the Seattle Times.
MedPage Today reports that there was also high satisfaction among patients who did receive the prescription, according to the study.
"Patients, caregivers, and family members have frequently expressed gratitude after the patient obtained the prescription, regardless of whether it was ever filled or ingested, typically referencing an important sense of control in an uncertain situation."
The study says among the center’s patients, the average time to death after ingesting the secobarbital was 35 minutes, although one patient lingered until the next day, "causing distress on the part of family members and clinicians," but no complaint was filed.
The authors noted that critics argued that "vulnerable" populations might be selectively herded into the program. But Loggers and colleagues said their experience does not show that.
Of the 40 patients who received prescriptions at the Seattle clinic, 73 percent were non-Hispanic white, all but one had at least a high school diploma, 55 percent were male, and 90 percent had some form of insurance, in line with the general Washington state population.
"The program ensures that patients (and families) are aware of all the options for high-quality, end-of-life care, including palliative and hospice care, with the opportunity to have any concerns or fears addressed, while also meeting state requirements."