Little is known about the role family physicians play when a patient deliberately hastens death by voluntarily stopping eating and drinking (VSED). The purpose of this study was to gain more insight for family physicians when confronted with patients who wish to hasten death by VSED. We aimed to describe physicians' involvement in VSED, to describe characteristics and motives of their patients, and to describe the process of VSED in terms of duration, as well as common symptoms in the last 3 days of life.
We undertook a survey of a random national sample of 1,100 family physicians (response rate 72%), and 500 of these physicians received questions about their last patient who hastened death by VSED.
Of the 978 eligible physicians, 708 responded (72.4%); 46% had cared for a patient who hastened death by VSED. Of the 500 physicians who received the additional questions, 440 were eligible and 285 (64.8%) responded; they described 99 cases of VSED. Seventy percent of these patients were aged older than 80 years, 76% had severe disease (27% with cancer), and 77% were dependent on others for everyday care. Frequent reasons for the patients' death wish were somatic (79%), existential (77%), and dependence (58%). Median time until death was 7 days, and the most common symptoms before death were pain, fatigue, impaired cognitive functioning, and thirst or dry throat. Family physicians were involved in 62% of cases.
Patients who hasten death by VSED are mostly in poor health. It is not unlikely for family physicians to be confronted with VSED. They can play an important role in caring for these patients and their proxies by informing them of VSED and by providing support and symptom management during VSED.
Conflict of interest: ICMJE forms provided by the authors are available online along with the full text of this article.
Financial support: this study was funded by The Netherlands Organization for Research and Development (ZonMw).