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Jones, Paton and Kheriaty's articles demonstrate poor science and multiple, egregious instances of bias.

In 2015, Dr David Jones and Prof. David Paton published an article titled “How does legalization of physician-assisted suicide affect rates of suicide?” in the Southern Medical Journal. The article purported to establish suicide contagion from Oregon and Washington Death With Dignity Act (DWDA) deaths to “total suicides.”  It also purported to establish no decrease in general suicide rates, which Jones & Paton argued should occur by substitution of assisted death for some general suicides. (Notice how these two ‘expected’ results — an anticipated rise and an anticipated fall in suicide rates — are at odds in principle.)

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Executive Summary

In 2015, Dr David Jones & Prof. David Paton published an article in the Southern Medical Journal titled “How does legalization of physician-assisted suicide affect rates of suicide?” This study examines the article, as well as an enthusiastic editorial of it by Dr Aaron Kheriaty in the same journal issue, both of which portray “suicide contagion” from Oregon and Washington’s death with dignity acts (DWDA).

However, while contagion from general suicides is a well-established phenomenon, there are multiple sound reasons to reject contagion theory in relation to assisted deaths, including:

  • Most healthcare professionals readily acknowledge key differences in the characteristics of assisted deaths: for example, a fully informed, tested and rational decision with shared decision-making.
  • Those using Oregon and Washington’s DWDAs are, by qualifying for it, already actively dying. Thus, they are choosing between two ways of dying rather than between living and dying.
  • Most of those using the DWDA discuss it with their families (expected, peaceful death), whereas most general suicides occur in isolation and without discussion (unexpected, often violent death).
  • Multiple studies show that while families of general suicide experience complicated bereavement, families of assisted dying cope at least as well as, and in some cases better than, the general population or those who considered but did not pursue assisted death.

 
Even if “suicide contagion from assisted dying” theory were sound, direct evidence from official government sources shows that the number of potential suicides in Oregon in 2014 would have been fewer than 2 in 855 cases: undetectable by general modelling methods.

Jones & Paton’s article title conveys an air of skilled and scientific neutrality. However, close examination of the article, and Kheriaty’s editorialisation of it, reveals least ten serious flaws or ‘scientific sins.’

The authors demonstrated little understanding of the complex issues surrounding suicide, willingness to unjustifiably equate assisted dying with general suicide, contentment with failing to search for, consider or include contrary evidence including from sources they cite to argue their case, unreasonable trust in a model that couldn’t hope to legitimately resolve their premises, satisfaction with executing their model amateurishly, a disposition to overstate confidence of causation in the absence of meaningful statistical correlations, and an inclination for emphasising results in accordance with their theories while de-emphasising or ignoring others.

Any of these flaws was serious enough to invalidate Jones & Paton’s article and Kheriaty’s conclusions of it, yet there is not one deadly flaw: there are at least ten.

Their claim of a supposed 6.3% suicide contagion rate from assisted dying in Oregon and Washington is a conceptual and mathematical farce.

The Southern Medical Journal is a peer-reviewed journal. However, it is difficult to reconcile the rigorous standards and sound reputation that peer review is intended to maintain, with the numerous, egregious flaws in this study and its dissemination.

Rather than inform the ongoing conversation about lawful assisted dying, the Jones & Paton and Kheriaty articles misinform and inflame it.

Given the numerous egregious flaws, both articles ought to be retracted.

 

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Lead author Professor Ezekiel Emanuel discusses the findings of the JAMA study.

Several of the world's foremost researchers in medical end-of-life matters have released a detailed and comprehensive review of the practice of assisted dying in lawful jurisdictions around the world. Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, it does not support slippery slope hypotheses.

Professors from universities in the USA, the Netherlands and Belgium studied data from government and statutory authority reports, primary scientific studies and other sources to examine how assisted dying has been practiced in different jurisdictions around the world where it is lawful in one form or another: self-administered medication (physician-assisted dying) or physician-administered medication (active voluntary euthanasia).1

Their primary conclusion is that:

"Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are increasingly being legalized, remain relatively rare, and primarily involve patients with cancer. Existing data do not indicate widespread abuse of these practices."

Key findings

Key findings include:

  • Public opinion favouring assisted dying in developed countries has been increasing, or remained stable at high levels of approval.
  • The trends seem to correlate with decreasing religiosity in Western countries.
  • The only place where assisted dying approval appears to be decreasing is in eastern Europe, where religiosity has been increasing.
  • Approval amongst physicians seems to be consistently lower than amongst the public.
  • Assisted dying occurs everywhere, including juridictions where it is unlawful (as I have previously reported).
  • Most individuals who choose assisted dying have advanced cancer (as I have previously reported).
  • Supposedly 'vulnerable' groups are not represented in assisted dying figures at rates any higher than their presence in the overall population.
  • Numbers of assisted deaths in lawful jurisdictions continue to increase, but represent a tiny minority of deaths.
    • In jurisdictions where only self-administration is permitted, assisted deaths represent around 0.3% of all deaths.
    • In jurisdictions where physicians may administer, assisted deaths represent around 3–5% of all deaths.
  • Assisted deaths for minors and those with dementia are a very small minority of cases (as I have previously reported).
  • The dominant reasons for requesting assisted death include loss of autonomy and dignity and the inability to enjoy life and regular activities; not physical pain.
  • Doctors still report that honouring a request for assisted death is emotionally burdensome; not a routine or welcomed option.
     

"In no jurisdiction was there evidence that vulnerable patients have been receiving euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide at rates higher than those in the general population."

Complication rates

One aspect of the study is worthy of special mention: the small rate of assisted dying procedure complications. The available data suggests that complications may occur more often for self-administered medication than for physician administration:

  • For self-administration—
    • Difficulty in swallowing in 9.6% of cases
    • Vomiting or seizures in 8.8% of cases
    • Awakening from coma in 12.3% of cases
  • For physician administration—
    • Technical problems such as difficulty in finding a suitable vein in 4.5% of cases
    • Vomiting or seizures in 3.7% of cases
    • Awakening from coma in 0.9% of cases
       

This data is however of Dutch practice in the 1990s, before assisted dying was codified in statute—at a time when practice was poorly defined and a range of drugs, including opioids, were widely used. Now, practice is well-defined with almost universal use of barbiturates. The researchers expressly note that these complication rates may well have reduced.

Further, the authors refer to more recent data from Oregon and Washington which indicate very much lower complication rates (in those jurisdictions for self-administration only):

  • In Oregon, the complication rates are around 2.4% for regurgitation and 0.7% for awakening from coma.
  • In Washington, the complication rates are around 1.4% for regurgitation, plus a single case of seizure.
     

The importance of context

It is worth comparing the complication rates of assisted dying procedures with rates for other medical interventions to provide an appropriate context so that they may be realistically interpreted.

For example, a study of common over-the-counter analgesics for short-term pain management2 found that significant adverse effects occurred amongst 13.7% of ibuprofen users, 14.5% of paracetamol useres and 18.7% of aspirin users.

In another example, an anlaysis of primary research about surgical outcomes found that 14.4% had adverse events, almost half of which (47.5%) were moderate to fatal in severity.3

Conclusion

The study is a solid synthesis of research data and indicates that assisted dying is accessed sparingly and in accordance with the intentions of each legislature.

The adverse event rate for assisted dying appears to be substantially lower than the rate of adverse events in the use of common over-the-counter analgesics and in surgery.

 

References

  1. Emanuel, EJ, Onwuteaka-Philipsen, BD, Urwin, JW & Cohen, J 2016, 'Attitudes and practices of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide in the united states, canada, and europe', JAMA, 316(1), pp. 79-90.
  2. Moore, N, Ganse, EV, Parc, J-ML, Wall, R, Schneid, H, Farhan, M, Verrière, F & Pelen, F 1999, 'The PAIN Study: Paracetamol, Aspirin and Ibuprofen new tolerability study', Clinical Drug Investigation, 18(2), pp. 89-98.
  3. Anderson, O, Davis, R, Hanna, GB & Vincent, CA 2013, 'Surgical adverse events: a systematic review', Am J Surg, 206(2), pp. 253-62.
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