'Inhumane deaths': from unsubstantiated claim to full-on polemic

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An article in 'Anasthesia' did NOT find high rates of regaining consciousness in contemporary VAD practice.

A recent article by Sinmyee et al, "Legal and ethical implications of defining an optimum means of achieving unconsciousness in assisted dying", published in the journal Anasthesia1 was an attempt to identify a professional standard for inducing and maintaining unconsciousness prior to voluntary assisted dying (VAD) death, a laudable aim.

However, the authors’ underlying premise of contemporary VAD practice failing to reliably maintain unconsciousness — potentially leading to 'inhumane deaths' — is not established by their cited sources. They cite exactly three sources to establish their claim: their citations 31, 32 and 33.

Citation 31 — Iserson et al 1992

This is a qualitative article by Ken Iserson and colleagues.2 Published in 1992, it outlines a single case of assisted suicide, forming the backdrop for several Californian ethics committees to comment.

Not only was this a single case rather tha a sample of dozens or hundreds of cases, but assisted dying was illegal right across the USA in 1992 and earlier. Therefore, the article is wholly uninformative to contemporary practice under assisted dying laws.

Citation 32 — Groenewoud et al 2000

This is a study by Johanna Groenewoud and colleagues.3 Published in 2000, it analyses Dutch data collected between 1990 to 1996 — long before the Netherlands’ 2001 euthanasia Act, which came into effect in 2002.

In 1997 the Dutch medical association (KNMG) formed the Support and Consultation on Euthanasia in Amsterdam (SCEA) network to assist doctors implement the practice more reliably. The successful program was made national (…in the Netherlands, SCEN) in 1999, with a four-year implementation resulting in strong consultation and positive outcomes.4

In addition, the KNMG and Dutch pharmacy association (KNMP) have improved their guidelines for euthanasia practice since 1996: in 1998, 2007 and most recently in 2012.5 Independent studies show that use of opioids (inappropriate method) was high in the Netherlands in 1995-96,6 but replaced entirely with (appropriate) barbiturates and neuromuscular relaxants in reported VAD cases in 2010.7

The most recent published report of the Dutch Euthanasia Commission, which assesses every reported case of VAD, did not note any failures of the VAD procedures.8

Citation 33 — Lalmohamed & Horikx 2010

This is a study by Arief Lalmohamed and Annamieke Horikx, published in 2010, of doctor responses to a survey the KNMP conducted between 2007 and 2009.9 The study reported on issues with the storage, preparation and administration of VAD drugs. It noted that the recommended dose of Thiopental was increased from 1500mg to 2000mg so that patient-dependent dosages need not be calculated.

The study noted one negative experience for some patients: pain on injection of Thiopental. Recommendations were made for preparation and administration of the drug to avoid this problem. No other negative patient outcomes were reported.

The upshot

Thus, of the three sources the authors employed to make the case of a significant and systematic problem in the conduct of contemporary VAD cases, none did so: the first was a single case outside the law in the early 1990s, the second a study from the early to mid 1990s from whence contemporary practice has greatly improved, and the third a 2010 pharmacological investigation that found some patients experiencing pain on injection and recommending improvements to avoid it. Nevertheless, Sinmyee et al concluded that:

“For all these forms of assisted dying, there appears to be a relatively high incidence of vomiting (up to 10%), prolongation of death (up to 7 days), and reawakening from coma (up to 4%), constituting failure of unconsciousness.”

These assertions are highly misleading in regard to contemporary VAD practice.

The most recent Oregon Death With Dignity Act annual report, covering all cases from 1997 to early 2019 reports that just eight of 1,467 deaths where lethal medication was consumed, resulted in the patient regaining consciousness.10 That’s an efficacy rate of 99.5%, a high standard for a medical procedure.

There have been no cases of regaining consciousness in Washington state under their Death With Dignity Act.11

In comparison, regaining consciousness under professional surgical anaesthesia is a problem12 with an incidence rate of around 0.13% in the USA13 though the rate appears to be much lower in the UK.14 Even over-the-counter analgesics like paracetamol, ibuprofen and aspirin have significant adverse effects rates of 14.5%, 13.7% and 18.7% (respectively).15

From unsubstantiated to polemical

While Sinmyee and colleagues were attempting, via their article in Anasthesia, to argue the case for improved VAD practice, it was inevitable that ginger groups opposing the legalisation of VAD would commandeer cherry-picked extracts from the article to further their cause, painting a picture of disaster and mayhem.

Sure enough, the Catholic-backed Euthanasia Prevention Coalition’s Alex Schadenberg ran with it, cherry picking the “190 times higher” rate the authors claim for “failure of unconsciousness” using their invalid citations. Schadenberg conspiratorially concluded that “the laws are designed to cover-up [sic] problems with the law”.16

Also, predictably, Catholic-backed HOPE’s Branka van der Linden followed suit, plucking quotes like “…failure rates of assisted dying by these other methods seems extraordinarily high” without similar context.17

It’s disappointing that the original article with its misleading statistics based on figures plucked from a single historical article and in the absence of considering significant intervening improvements, passed peer review. Its misinformation led to more nonsense being energetically pedalled by anti-VAD campaigners.

 

References

  1. Sinmyee, S, Pandit, VJ, Pascual, JM, Dahan, A, Heidegger, T, Kreienbühl, G, Lubarsky, DA & Pandit, JJ 2019, 'Legal and ethical implications of defining an optimum means of achieving unconsciousness in assisted dying', Anaesthesia, 74(5), pp. 630-637.
  2. Iserson, KV, Rasinski Gregory, D, Christensen, K & Ofstein, MR 1992, 'Willful death and painful decisions: A failed assisted suicide', Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, 1(2), pp. 147-158.
  3. Groenewoud, JH, van der Heide, A, Onwuteaka-Philipsen, B, Willems, DL, van der Maas, PJ & van der Wal, G 2000, 'Clinical problems with the performance of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide in the Netherlands', New England Journal of Medicine, 342(8), pp. 551-556.
  4. Jansen-Van Der Weide, MC, Onwuteaka-Philipsen, BD & Van Der Wal, G 2004, 'Implementation of the project 'Support and Consultation on Euthanasia in the Netherlands' (SCEN)', Health Policy, 69(3), pp. 365-373.
  5. KNMG/KNMP 2012, Guidelines for the practice of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, Utrecht, pp. 56.
  6. van der Maas, PJ, van der Wal, G, Haverkate, I, de Graaff, CL, Kester, JG, Onwuteaka-Philipsen, BD, van der Heide, A, Bosma, JM & Willems, DL 1996, 'Euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, and other medical practices involving the end of life in the Netherlands, 1990-1995', N Engl J Med, 335(22), pp. 1699-705.
  7. Onwuteaka-Philipsen, BD, Brinkman-Stoppelenburg, A, Penning, C, de Jong-Krul, GJF, van Delden, JJM & van der Heide, A 2012, 'Trends in end-of-life practices before and after the enactment of the euthanasia law in the Netherlands from 1990 to 2010: a repeated cross-sectional survey', The Lancet, 380(9845), pp. 908-915.
  8. Regional Euthanasia Review Committees (Netherlands) 2018, Annual report 2017, Arnhem, pp. 66.
  9. Lalmohamed, A & Horikx, A 2010, '[Experience with euthanasia since 2007: Analysis of problems with execution] Ervaringen met euthanastica sinds 2007: Onderzoek naar problemen in de uitvoering', Ned Tijdschr Geneeskd, 154(A1983), pp. 1-6.
  10. Oregon Health Authority 2019, Oregon Death With Dignity Act: 2018 data summary, Department of Human Services, Portland, pp. 16.
  11. Washington State Department of Health 2018, Washington State Department of Health 2017 Death with Dignity Act Report, Olympia, WA, pp. 15.
  12. Cook, TM, Andrade, J, Bogod, DG, Hitchman, JM, Jonker, WR, Lucas, N, Mackay, JH, Nimmo, AF, O'Connor, K, O'Sullivan, EP, Paul, RG, Palmer, JH, Plaat, F, Radcliffe, JJ, Sury, MR, Torevell, HE, Wang, M, Hainsworth, J, Pandit, JJ, Royal College of, A, the Association of Anaesthetists of Great, B & Ireland 2014, 'The 5th National Audit Project (NAP5) on accidental awareness during general anaesthesia: patient experiences, human factors, sedation, consent and medicolegal issues', Anaesthesia, 69(10), pp. 1102-16.
  13. Sebel, PS, Bowdle, TA, Ghoneim, MM, Rampil, IJ, Padilla, RE, Gan, TJ & Domino, KB 2004, 'The incidence of awareness during anesthesia: A multicenter United States study', Anesthesia & Analgesia, 99(3), pp. 833-839.
  14. Thomas, G & Cook, TM 2016, 'The United Kingdom National Audit Projects: a narrative review', Southern African Journal of Anaesthesia and Analgesia, 22(2), pp. 38-45.
  15. 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.
  16. Schadenberg, A 2019, Assisted dying can cause inhumane deaths, Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, viewed 25 Feb 2019, http://alexschadenberg.blogspot.com/2019/02/assisted-dying-can-cause-inhumane-deaths.html.
  17. van der Linden, B 2019, The "myth" of a pain-free euthanasia death, HOPE, viewed 22 Mar 2019, http://www.noeuthanasia.org.au/the_myth_of_a_pain_free_euthanasia_death.

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