ASHLAND, ORE. - Fewer than 1 in 1,000 deaths in Oregon has been the result of physician-assisted suicide since 1997, when a controversial law approving the practice was passed in the state legislature, Dr. Susan Tolle said at the annual meeting of the Pacific Coast Obstetrical and Gynecological Society, where she was a special guest speaker.
Most people who contemplate physician-assisted suicide receive treatment for depression, find that hospice is adequate to quell their fears of a painful death, or simply change their minds, said Dr. Tolle, director of the Center for Ethics in Health Care at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland. The controversy has left its mark on Oregon, but in a surprising way, she said. The constant media coverage and political debate about physician-assisted suicide appear to have made people more comfortable discussing their own end-of-life decisions, whether or not they would ever contemplate suicide.
By the time they die, 67% of all Oregonians have a living will. In nursing homes, 91% of residents have "Do not resuscitate" orders. Almost one-third of dying people in Oregon now take advantage of hospice services. And, at 31% in 1998, Oregon now ranks 50th in the nation in terms of percentage of deaths that occur in the hospital. "I consider [this finding] the bigger impact" of the new law, Dr. Tolle said.
In a random sampling of 475 families listed on Oregon death certificates since passage of the law, 87% said that their relative received the "right amount" of life-sustaining treatment in the last month of his or her life. …