Here's What Doctors Really Think About The Most Controversial Questions In Medicine

Afp terminally ill us woman who fought for right to die kills selfAFPBrittany Maynard, 29, legally ended her life by taking a prescription on Nov. 1 in her home in Oregon.

Letting doctors help a terminally ill person end their life is controversial.

Though physician-assisted suicide is technically legal in five states, that right has mostly been exercised in Washington, Vermont, and most-famously, Oregon, where Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman with terminal brain cancer, recently ended her life on Nov. 1.

Before that, she captured the attention of millions with a few YouTube videos put together by the advocacy group Compassion & Choices.

Americans in general support the right to physician-assisted suicide, though the number varies depending on how the question is asked — as of 2013 it was as high as 71% in support, if described as “end the patient’s life by some painless means.” That dropped to 51% if it was described as a helping a patient “commit suicide.”

But what about the physicians themselves?

According to a survey published Dec. 17 by Medscape, an online professional network and information source for physicians, 54% of doctors answered the question “should physician-assisted suicide be allowed” with a yes.

“I believe terminal illnesses such as metastatic cancers or degenerative neurological diseases rob a human of his/her dignity,” one respondent told Medscape.

That doctor continued: “Provided there is no shred of doubt that the disease is incurable and terminal, I would support a patient’s decision to end their life, and I would also wish the same option was available in my case should the need arise.”

More than half of doctors support helping a terminal patient end their life, the highest that number has been ever since Medscape started conducting an ethics survey in 2010.

For this survey, Medscape asked more than 21,000 physicians a list of ethical questions. More than 17,000 of those were US doctors, while 4,000 European physicians responded.

Europeans were less likely to say physician-assisted suicide should be allowed, with only 41% saying yes, the same percentage that said no (18% responded with “it depends.”).

But physician-assisted suicide wasn’t the only ethical dilemma that doctors answered questions about. Questions ranged from whether or not it’s ok to date patients to questions about performing abortions.

Here are a few more notable responses:

  • Only 1% of doctors think it’s ok to date a current patient, but 22% might consider a romantic encounter if six months to a year has passed since treatment, and 10% say it depends. That’s a change — back in 2010, even after six months only 12% said it was ok.

  • European and US doctors have different attitudes about how to best tell a patient about a terminal diagnosis. Only 21% of US doctors said they might soften the news to try and give a little hope, while 46% of European doctors said they might soften the news.
  • When asked if they would perform an abortion even if it were against their personal beliefs, 44% of doctors said yes, while 41% said no (15% said it depends). Notably, all doctors answered that question, so it included some who were imagining how they might feel if they were opposed to abortion.
  • Various questions earned more “it depends” answers than affirmative or negative responses — which reflects the difficulties with ethics in general. For example, 43% of doctors said said “it depends” when asked if it was right to provide intensive care to a newborn who would either die soon or would survive with “an objectively terrible quality of life,” while 31% said it was right and 27% said it was not.

You can check out part one of the full report over at Medscape.

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