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Desire for physician-assisted suicide among patients receiving palliative cancer care: Results of Canada-wide study now available

June 6, 2007

A large proportion of patients receiving palliative care for cancer would consider making a request for physician-assisted suicide if it were legally available, but only if their worst fears about pain and symptoms actually came true. For most, the situation never becomes so dire, according to a study published in the latest edition of the journal Health Psychology.

The results are part of the Canadian National Palliative Care Survey, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. The survey is believed to be one of the largest and most comprehensive of its kind, including detailed interviews with 379 patients across Canada receiving palliative care for cancer. Findings have been published and released in several stages, with previous stages focusing on depression, anxiety, and suffering.

Findings published in this stage include:
• Sixty-three per cent of participants believed that euthanasia and / or physician-assisted suicide should be legalized.
• Forty per cent of participants indicated they would consider making a future request for physician-assisted suicide if their situation deteriorated to a “worst-case scenario”.
• Ten per cent of participants believed that had the option been legally available, they would already have requested physician-assisted suicide, usually because of uncontrolled pain. When their pain was brought under control, however, they tended to change their minds about suicide.
• Nevertheless, a further six per cent of participants indicated they would immediately request physician-assisted suicide, if it were available. Interestingly, for this group, the issues tended to be more complex than pain alone.

The study was led by Dr. Keith Wilson, an Associate Scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Ottawa, Psychologist at The Ottawa Hospital Rehabilitation Centre, and Scientist at the Elisabeth Bruyère Research Institute.

“The results of this study are helping us answer fundamental questions about the factors that lead some people to consider euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide,” said Dr. Wilson. “For example, we found that people who said they would request suicide were not necessarily closer to death and were not in significantly more pain, but they were much more likely to be experiencing drowsiness, general malaise, depression, and a feeling of being a burden to others. We also found that those people who reversed their desire for suicide may have done so because their physical and mental symptoms subsided, either on their own or through treatment.”

Dr. Wilson noted that the study has several limitations. For example, some physicians chose not to approach patients about the study because they were concerned it would compromise their care, and some patients who were approached declined to participate. Despite these limitations, the study remains the most comprehensive of its kind in Canada.

About the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute
The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (OHRI) is the research arm of The Ottawa Hospital and an affiliated institute of the University of Ottawa. The OHRI includes more than 1,200 scientists, clinicians, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and staff conducting research to improve the understanding, prevention, diagnosis and treatment of human disease. For more information visit www.ohri.ca.

About the Canadian Institutes of Health Research
The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) is the Government of Canada's agency for health research. CIHR's mission is to create new scientific knowledge and to catalyze its translation into improved health, more effective health services and products, and a strengthened Canadian health care system. Composed of 13 Institutes, CIHR provides leadership and support to more than 10,000 health researchers and trainees across Canada. www.cihr-irsc.gc.ca

Media Contacts:
Jennifer Paterson
Director, Communications and Public Relations
Ottawa Hospital Research Institute
Office: 613-798-5555 x 19691
Mobile: 613-614-5253
Email: jpaterson@ohri.ca

David Coulombe
CIHR Media Specialist
Office: 613-941-4563
Mobile: 613-808-7526
Email: mediarelations@cihr-irsc.gc.ca