Cancer Doc: Don’t Abandon Patients At The End Of Life By Enabling Assisted Suicide

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By Dr. Alan Carver

We need only look back to the 2016 election to remember that polling can often be misrepresented and requires careful scrutiny. Even when interested parties refer to their own polling as “truth,” (“5 truths about New York’s Medical Aid in Dying Act,” March 27, 2019) always remember: A poll is simply a reflection of the people who actually respond to it.

Such is the case with recent “polls” conducted by the advocacy group supporting assisted suicide expansion in the United States. In the first survey of physicians, Compassion & Choices, formerly the Hemlock Society, used 600 email responses out of 78,000 licensed physicians in New York state to misrepresent that New York doctors “support” assisted suicide.

There are many problems with their method of collection as well as their representation of the results. Here are just a few.

The organization does not tell us how many actual responses they received, only the number of responses they used – no response rate nor sample size. Further, 600 responses out of 78,000 represents a remarkably low return rate for public opinion research of this type. There is no margin of error listed and the data are accompanied by only a vague methodology, signaling that this was really more like a skewed survey response of their supporters than a scientific poll conducted by a reputable institution.

An accurate representation of the “poll” would indicate that less than a quarter of responding doctors strongly support assisted suicide. A deeper read also shows that less than 20% of the doctors surveyed “strongly agree” that they would actually write a prescription for the assisted suicide drug cocktail.

Unfortunately, this recent poll is another all too common example in politics and public policy where an organization is sculpting polling results to fit their preferred conclusion.

A Siena poll was recently released that shows this issue is far more controversial than proponents would like you to believe. That survey shows that New York African-Americans, Latinos and those that self-identify as lower-income strongly oppose assisted suicide.

The truth is that in state after state, patients’ rights and disability rights advocates, oncologists, psychiatrists, palliative care and healthcare professionals warn about the dangers of assisted suicide. Those with limited income or who are more likely to face institutional or racial discrimination are very wary of assisted suicide, and for good reason. Disability rights and chronic disease organizations remind us about how big insurance companies have made care decisions based on a patient’s cost and how assisted suicide regulations limit treatment choices for many individuals.

Unlike what proponents would have us believe, the fate of good patient care in this country should be based on more than numbers in a baked survey that represents little more than the unfortunate views of assisted suicide proponents – certainly not that of the vast majority of physicians in the state of New York nor of most of the country. My colleagues Dr. Sean Morrison and Dr. Diane Meier, palliative care leaders at Mount Sinai Medical Center, have demonstrated unequivocally that good end-of-life care underscores not only the importance of physician non-abandonment, but also saves money.

There is nothing compassionate about ending the lives of people with advanced cancer or other life limiting illnesses. This so-called “choice” is no choice at all to a great many for whom it seems like the only choice – a poorly veiled commentary that life is only worth living in the absence of illness and disability. In my experience, the vast majority of patients, when their symptoms are well controlled, do not desire hastened death and their wishes for suicide rapidly vanish when the suffering is relieved.

Patient care should be based on more than data sets. In this advanced era of medical care, including a wide array of treatment for pain and other sources of suffering, there is simply no need for assisted suicide. There are better ways to care for patients facing serious disease or disability, no matter the stage of illness, and there is where we ought to focus our public policy and clinical efforts. To do otherwise is a vote to abandon our patients and their families when they most need us.

Dr. Alan Carver is attending neurologist and palliative care expert at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

Source: “Cancer Doc: Don’t Abandon Patients At The End Of Life By Enabling Assisted Suicide”,

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