Communication Can Reduce the Problems of Assisted Suicide

Written By Sophie Okolo

Critically conditioned medical patients not residing in the 5 states where physician-assisted suicide is legal face many problems within the health system, including communication barriers that ultimately cause harmful confusion.

According to the American Medical Association, “physician-assisted suicide occurs when a physician facilitates a patient’s death by providing the necessary means and/or information to enable the patient to perform the life-ending act.” Although this practice is unlawful in many states, overwhelmed families and medical professionals still find ways to hasten death through indirect communication, which can lead to wrong assumptions and cause confusion.

For example, Hope Arnold had a very frustrating experience. Her husband’s doctor gave her a bottle of liquid morphine without any reason, and when she handed the bottle back, the doctor put it back in her hand and said she might need it. It was only when Arnold got home that she and her terminally ill husband realized that the doctor may have wanted her to give her husband an overdose.

The problem is that ” …it is legal for people to take or give large doses of narcotics to relieve pain, even if a known side-effect is that it may hasten death…. The difference has to do with intent and that’s a tricky thing because it is about what’s going on in the mind,” according to Stanford medical ethicist David Magnus.

“Over three percent of U.S. doctors have written a prescription for life-ending medication and almost five percent of doctors reported giving a patient a lethal injection,” according to an anonymous survey published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Other studies suggest doctors on the West Coast are more likely to be asked for life-ending medication, wherein the doctor administers the lethal dose.

While these numbers are significant, the U.S. health system can reduce misunderstandings by encouraging open dialogue among medical professionals and families, within the legal context. This can reduce problems including lack of patient knowledge about assisted suicide, delayed hospice and palliative care, and more. Medical professionals need to communicate effectively with families to increase access to care and improve patient quality of life.

What is your opinion of assisted suicide? Do you think assisted suicide should be legal in all states?

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