Physician-assisted death in psychiatric practice in the Netherlands
BACKGROUND: In 1994 the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that in exceptional instances, physician-assisted suicide might be justifiable for patients with unbearable mental suffering but no physical illness. We studied physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia in psychiatric practice in the Netherlands. METHODS: In 1996, we sent questionnaires to 673 Dutch psychiatrists - about half of all such specialists in the country - and received 552 responses from the 667 who met the study criteria (response rate, 83 percent). We estimated the annual frequencies of requests for physician-assisted suicide by psychiatrists and actual instances of assistance. RESULTS: Of the respondents, 205 (37 percent) had at least once received an explicit, persistent request for physician-assisted suicide and 12 had complied. We estimate there are 320 requests a year in psychiatric practice and 2 to 5 assisted suicides. Excluding those who had ever assisted, 345 of the respondents (64 percent) thought physician-assisted suicide because of a mental disorder could be acceptable, including 241 who said they could conceive of instances in which they themselves would be willing to assist. The most frequent reasons for refusing were the belief that the patient had a treatable mental disorder, opposition to assisted suicide in principle, and doubt that the suffering was unbearable or hopeless. Most, but not all, patients who had been assisted by their psychiatrists in suicide had both a mental disorder and a serious physical illness, often in a terminal phase. Thirty percent of the respondents had been consulted at least once by a physician in another specialty about a patient's request for assisted death. The annual number of such consultations was estimated at 310, about 3 percent of the estimated 9700 requests for euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide in medical practice. CONCLUSIONS: Explicit requests for physician-assisted suicide are not uncommon in psychiatric practice in the Netherlands, but these requests are rarely granted. Psychiatric consultation for medical patients who request physician-assisted death is relatively rare.