Physician-assisted Suicide and the Palliative Care Physician

 

“SHOULD I HELP MY PATIENTS DIE?”

This is the title of an August 5 op-ed in the New York Times by Dr. Jessica Nutik Zitter, an ICU and palliative medicine specialist in California who speaks and writes extensively on end of life care.

Dr. Zitter writes that she felt uncomfortable when first asked to help with a patient who wanted assisted suicide under the new California law and first polled 10 palliative care colleagues and found that they were also uncomfortable:

“It wasn’t necessarily that we disapproved, but we didn’t want to automatically become the go-to people on this very complex issue, either.”

Dr. Zitter then saw the patient, a man in his early 60s with a terminal illness in “no obvious (physical) distress” who felt abandoned by his sister and said he wanted to die because “I’m just sick of living” and “fed up with my lousy life.”

Even though the man met the legal criteria for assisted suicide, Dr. Zitter was relieved when he agreed to a 4 week course of antidepressant medication and follow up with his primary doctor. She later learned that the man died without assisted suicide 3 months later.

But despite escaping responsibility for a death in this case, Dr. Zitter admits:

“I want this (assisted suicide) option available to me and my family. I have seen much suffering around death. In my experience, most of the pain can be managed by expert care teams focusing on symptom management and family support. But not all. My mother is profoundly claustrophobic. I can imagine her terror if she were to develop Lou Gehrig’s disease, which progressively immobilizes patients while their cognitive faculties remain largely intact. For my mother, this would be a fate worse than death.” (Emphasis added)

Dr. Zitter then decided to get help sorting out her support for assisted suicide and reservations about personally participating by contacting Dr. Lonnie Shavelson.

Dr. Zitter was impressed with Dr. Shavelson who allegedly performs a “time-consuming” assessment of the patient’s medical illness, mental and emotional state and family dynamics. Dr. Zitter was also impressed that he claims does not offer the lethal medications to most of the patients who request them because of concerns like coercion, that they would live longer than 6 months, or were experiencing severe depression.

Ironically, this is the same Dr. Shavelson I wrote about last year in my blog “Tolerating Evil”  after San Francisco’s Mercury News did an article on him on June 6, 2016.

As I wrote then:

“Dr. Lonnie Shavelson, 64 and a long-time supporter of assisted suicide, was an emergency room doctor for 29 year and then spend 7 years at an Oakland clinic for immigrants and refugees before taking a 2 year break.

His new assisted suicide business could be quite lucrative. Although Medicare will not pay for assisted suicide costs, Shavelson says he will charge $200 for an initial patient evaluation. If the patient is deemed qualified under California law, Shavelson said he would charge another $1800 for more visits, evaluations and legal forms.”

At that time, Dr. Shavelson defended his business by claiming that “the demand (for assisted suicide) is so high, that the only compassionate thing to do would be to bring it above ground and regulate it.”

Finally, Dr. Zitter called palliative care colleagues around the state and was heartened by the mostly positive responses to participating in the assisted suicide law. Dr. Meredith Heller, director of inpatient palliative services at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco told Dr. Zitter that “Surprisingly, the vast majority of cases here have gone smoothly.” (Emphasis added)

But rather than worrying about the cases that don’t go smoothly, Dr. Zitter’s concerns now are primarily about shaping policies and protocols “to account for the nuanced social, legal and ethical questions that will continue to arise” and training “the clinicians who are best qualified and most willing to do this work and then train them appropriately”. She is also concerned about the problems with reimbursement for such assisted suicide “services”, especially for the poor.

CONCLUSION

When I started working in hospice many years ago, I loved it. When palliative care was introduced for symptom control, I cheered it.

But as time wore on, I became alarmed and left when I saw the efforts to change the traditional hospice philosophy from never causing or hastening death to just “choice”.

Dr. Zitter seems to be a compassionate physician who really doesn’t want to be involved in physician-assisted suicide herself but ultimately feels compelled to support it because it is California law and because she might want assisted suicide for herself or her claustrophobic mother in some possible future scenario.

Dr. Zitter apparently tries to reassure herself-and thus the public-that assisted suicide can be “safe” by being rare and practiced by specially trained medical practitioners.

However, when the most basic medical  ethics principle of never killing  patients is eliminated, the foundation of medicine itself crumbles. Medical professionals become little more than highly trained technicians compelled to follow any new law or policy regardless of its detrimental impact on their patients, society or themselves.

In the end, assisted suicide cannot be regulated or carefully practiced into a “safe” medical procedure. The only way to thwart the expansion and consequences of assisted suicide is to prevent or end its legalization.

 

 

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