Oregon – Worrying signs which need to be heeded.

The 2011 annual report on physician-assisted suicide in the US State of Oregon has been published

the number of physician-assisted suicides occurring annually in Oregon is now four and a half times what it was at the outset

Official data have been released on the number and characteristics of terminally ill people in Oregon who died as a result of swallowing lethal drugs prescribed by doctors.

According to the official report, 71 people died in this way in Oregon in 2011. The report says that there were, in addition, two people who took the prescribed lethal drugs but regained consciousness and died shortly afterwards from their underlying illness. Though these deaths are not counted officially as acts of physician-assisted suicide (PAS), they need to be included in the count of people who decided to take their own lives in this way. On this basis the number of PAS deaths in Oregon in 2011 shows an increase of 12.3 per cent over the figure for 2010.

However, let us work simply from the official figure of 71 – a 9.2 per cent increase on 2010. Oregon’s population is small (3.8 million). If its 2011 death rate from PAS were to be replicated in Britain, we would be looking at 1,110 such deaths annually in England and Wales or 1,264 physician-assisted suicides for the UK as a whole.

We have previously observed that the number of such suicides in Oregon has increased fourfold since the law was changed to license physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill people. That figure needs to be revised in the light of the latest official data: the number of physician-assisted suicides occurring annually in Oregon is now four and a half times what it was at the outset.

Once again, it is the elderly who made up the majority of those who ended their lives in this way in Oregon. The 2011 report shows the median age as 70 years: it records that 69 per cent of all such deaths were among persons aged 65 or over. Once again, hardly any of the 71 people who died in this way had been referred for psychiatric evaluation. The 2011 report records just one such referral. The prescribing physicians were present at less than 10 per cent of the deaths.

During 2011 a total of 114 prescriptions for lethal drugs were handed out by doctors in Oregon to terminally ill patients. According to the official report, they were written by 62 doctors, one of whom wrote as many as 14 prescriptions for lethal drugs. It is not disclosed to what extent there was other multiple prescribing.

The median length of the doctor-patient relationship for those who died as a result of PAS was 12 weeks, pointing to the presence of ‘doctor shopping’.

What conclusions can be drawn from the latest official report? It would be unfair to describe Oregon’s PAS regime as out of control, but the steady rise in the number of such deaths, the very small incidence of referral of applicants for psychiatric evaluation, the short span of doctor-patient relationships and the presence of multiple prescribing are worrying features which need to be reflected on by those who advocate the introduction of a similar law here in Britain.