A sigh of relief is in order, but healthcare providers should not dismiss the idea of legalized physician-assisted suicide.
In fact, the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision nixing the idea that physician-assisted suicide is a constitutional right should prompt providers to take a hard look at how dying patients are treated.
Most provider groups, including the American Hospital Association and American Medical Association, believe the right of suicide would hamper the practice of medicine, challenge the integrity of caregivers and put too many healthcare professionals in morally compromising positions. And the legal ramifications of challenging or enforcing the right to suicide offered the promise of million-dollar headaches for physicians and administrators.
It would be best if government stayed out of this life-and- death issue. But with opinionated support on both sides, that's not likely to happen.
In response, healthcare organizations need to prioritize ways to improve treatment during patients' final days. Managers should seek the wisdom of geriatricians, ethicists and other caregivers already active in dealing with the terminally ill. One encouraging example is Supportive Care for the Dying, a coalition of six Catholic healthcare organizations (June 23, p. 44). In its initial study, the group said seriously ill patients typically have fragmented, episodic contact with healthcare providers. Curing illness remains the focus, rather than compassionate care that prepares patients for the end.
It's time for health systems to reassess the strategies of their approach to hospice care, patient counseling and pain therapy. But improvement will only come if administrators, physicians and staff commit to helping patients make the last phase of life more meaningful.