Indexed on: 24 Jun '06Published on: 24 Jun '06Published in: BMC Family Practice
A bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide in the UK recently made significant progress in the British House of Lords and will be reintroduced in the future. Until now there has been little discussion of the clinical implications of physician-assisted suicide for the UK. This paper describes problematical issues that became apparent from a review of the medical and psychiatric literature as to the potential effects of legalized physician-assisted suicide.Most deaths by physician-assisted suicide are likely to occur for the illness of cancer and in the elderly. GPs will deal with most requests for assisted suicide. The UK is likely to have proportionately more PAS deaths than Oregon due to the bill's wider application to individuals with more severe physical disabilities. Evidence from other countries has shown that coercion and unconscious motivations on the part of patients and doctors in the form of transference and countertransference contribute to the misapplication of physician-assisted suicide. Depression influences requests for hastened death in terminally ill patients, but is often under-recognized or dismissed by doctors, some of whom proceed with assisted death anyway. Psychiatric evaluations, though helpful, do not solve these problems. Safeguards that are incorporated into physician-assisted suicide criteria probably decrease but do not prevent its misapplication.The UK is likely to face significant clinical problems arising from physician-assisted suicide if it is legalized. Terminally ill patients with mental illness, especially depression, are particularly vulnerable to the misapplication of physician-assisted suicide despite guidelines and safeguards.