Right to die: According to the results, there are no incidences of physician-assisted suicide in the UK. Incidences of voluntary euthanasia and ending of life without an explicit request from a patient (both of which are illegal practices) were reported, however both of these occur significantly less frequently than in most of the other countries where the survey has been carried out.
Law in the way: A small proportion of the 857 doctors who replied to the survey felt UK law had inhibited or interfered with their preferred management of the patient on whose care they reported (4.6% of doctors) or that a new law would have facilitated better management of that patient (2.6% of doctors).
Support for ban: 51 doctors wrote comments on the questionnaires containing views about the desirability of legal change or of medical involvement in hastening death. The majority of these (82%) supported the current legal ban on medical involvement in euthanasia or assisted suicide.
857 medical practitioners responded to the anonymous survey, providing details on the last death they attended. The doctors' replies were used to estimate the proportion of UK deaths where particular end-of-life decisions were made. The proportion of UK deaths involving an end-of-life decision were:
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Percentage of instances as proportion of total UK deaths
(1) voluntary euthanasia
(2) physician assisted suicide
(3) ending of life without an explicit request from patient
(4) alleviation of symptoms with possibly life shortening effect
(5) 'non-treatment' decisions (eg: withholding or withdrawing treatment)
(1) and (2) were significantly less frequent in the UK than in the Netherlands and Australia
(2) was also less frequent in the UK than Switzerland.
(3) was less frequent in the UK than in Belgium and Australia.
Comparison of UK and New Zealand general practitioners showed lower rates of(4) and (5) in the UK.
(5) was more common in the UK than in most other European countries.
The author of the report, Clive Seale, Professor of Sociology at Brunel University, London comments:'This is the first time a nationally representative survey of end-of-life decisions taken by doctors in the UK has been done and it has produced some interesting results.Euthanasia and physician assisted suicide are understandably very emotive subjects, but this work shows that UK doctors are less willing to take such actions than in several other countries. We have a very strong ethos of providing excellent palliative care in the UK, reflected in the finding that doctors in the UK are willing to make other kinds of decisions that prioritise the comfort of patients, without striving to preserve life at the cost of suffering. The results suggest that providing the best kind of patient care is a major driver behind medical decision making.'
Professor Seale will be discussing the survey results in further detail at a public lecture