Attitudes of Family Physicians in Washington State Toward Physician-Assisted Suicide

Journal of Rural Health

Context: The topic of physician-assisted suicide is difficult and controversial. With recent laws allowing physicians to assist in a terminally ill patient's suicide under certain circumstances, the debate concerning the appropriate and ethical role for physicians has intensified.

Purpose: This paper utilizes data from a 1997 survey of family physicians (FPs) in Washington State to test two hypotheses: (1) older respondents will indicate greater opposition to physician-assisted suicide than their younger colleagues, and (2) male and rural physicians will have more negative attitudes toward physician-assisted suicide than their female and urban counterparts.

Methods: A questionnaire administered to all active FPs obtained a 68% response rate, with 1074 respondents found to be eligible in this study. A ZIP code system based on generalist Health Service Areas was used to designate those practicing in rural versus urban areas.

Findings: One-fourth of the respondents overall indicated support for physician-assisted suicide. When asked whether this practice should be legalized, 39% said yes, 44% said no, and 18% indicated that they did not know. Fifty-eight percent of the study sample reported that they would not include physician-assisted suicide in their practices even if it were legal. Responses disaggregated by age-groups closely paralleled the group overall. There was a significant pattern of opposition on the part of rural male respondents compared to urban female respondents. Even among those reporting support for physician-assisted suicide, many expressed reluctance about including it in their practices.

Conclusions: These findings highlight the systematic differences in FP attitudes toward one aspect of healthcare by gender, rural-urban practice location, and other factors.

WWAMI Rural Health Research Center
Gary Hart, Tom Norris, Denise Lishner