New Study: Doctors Who Do Assisted Suicides Face Psychological Fallout

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   May 23, 2006   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

New Study: Doctors Who Do Assisted Suicides Face Psychological Fallout Email this article
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by Steven Ertelt Editor
May 23, 2006

Portland, OR ( — A new survey by a leading doctor who studies end of life issues finds that doctors in Oregon and the Netherlands that engage in assisted suicides or euthanasia face a variety of emotional fallout and psychological problems from their participation.

Dr. Kenneth Stevens, a former professor and chairman of the Radiation Oncology department at the Oregon Health & Science University, led the study. He surveyed dozens of articles in medical and public literature about the doctors involved.

"The emotional and psychological effects on the participating physician can be substantial," Dr. Stevens reports.

He indicated some of the guilt doctors who engages in the practices face is due to their deviation from the attitudes doctors normally have to help patients and foster healing.

"The shift away from the fundamental values of medicine to heal and promote human wholeness can have significant effects on many participating physicians," he said.

"Doctors describe being profoundly adversely affected, being shocked by the suddenness of the death, being caught up in the patient’s drive for assisted suicide, having a sense of powerlessness, and feeling isolated," Stevens reported.

Part of the emotional experiences doctors face comes from the patients themselves, Stevens says, as some patients bent on ending their own lives with the help of their physician may coerce the doctor into participating.

"There is evidence of pressure on and intimidation of doctors by some patients to assist in suicide," he said.

Stevens found some differences in the experience of doctors in Oregon, where assisted suicide is allow, and those in the Netherlands, where the practice extends into euthanasia.

Stevens cited several reports from Netherlands’ doctors who indicated they regretted their role in the killing of their patients.

"’To kill someone is something far reaching and that is something that nags at your conscience," one physician said. "I wonder what it would be like not to have these cases in my practice. Perhaps I would be a much more cheerful person."

The study found doctors were more likely to experience feelings of discomfort when participating in a euthanasia and second most in an assisted suicide. Doctors were much less likely to regret their experiences when alleviating pain with high doses of medication.

Dutch doctors felt "burdensome" feelings about half the time when participating in a euthanasia or assisted suicide.

Looking at doctors in Oregon, some 24% regretted performing an assisted suicide, according to Stevens’ research and 16 percent reported that the emotional burden adversely affected their medical practice.

"Doctors must take responsibility for causing the patient’s death," Stevens concludes. "There is a huge burden on conscience, tangled emotions and a large psychological toll on the participating physicians."

Stevens said these significant "side effects" on doctors participating in assisted suicide or euthanasia "need to be considered when discussing the pros and cons of legalization."

The study appears in Issues in Law & Medicine, a legal and scholarly publication that examines end of life issues and is published by the National Legal Center for the Medically Dependent and Disabled.

Related web sites:
Dr. Kenneth Steves’ study –