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Third of doctors act to shorten lives of dying patients

Around a third of doctors say they have given drugs to terminally ill patients or withdrawn treatment, knowing or intending that it would shorten their life, research reveals.

A study of doctors in charge of the last hours of almost 3,000 people finds decisions almost always have to be made on whether to give drugs to relieve pain that could shorten life and whether to continue resuscitation and artificial feeding.

In 211 cases (7.4%), doctors say they gave drugs or stopped treatment to speed the patient’s death. In 825 cases (28.9%), doctors made a decision on treatment that they knew would probably or certainly hasten death. One in 10 patients asked their doctor to help them die faster.

What doctors do varies according to their religious beliefs, according to Prof Clive Seale, of Queen Mary, University of London, who carried out the research. But, he said, there was no evidence of a “slippery slope”: that deaths of the most vulnerable, such as very elderly women and those with dementia, are being hastened more than others.

“People sometimes say if you legalise assisted dying, then very elderly people in care homes will be pushed towards death,” Seale said. “But the paper is fairly reassuring on that.”

His survey of 3,733 doctors, published online in the journal Social Science and Medicine, finds that only 242 people out of 2,855 who died (8.5%) were given no drugs for pain or other symptoms and did not have treatment withdrawn or withheld.

In the largest proportion of deaths (1,577 or 55.2%), doctors had given pain relief or withdrawn or withheld treatment, but said it had not shortened life.

Read more at The Guardian.

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