August 6, 2011

NETHERLANDS: Dutch doctors solidly behind euthanasia, says poll

CARLTON, Victoria, Australia / Mercator / Careful / August 6, 2011

By Michael Cook

How much can on-line polls be trusted? Not much. An on-line poll about euthanasia? Even less. However, in view of the sketchy state of information about euthanasia in the first country to legalise it, any poll is welcome. The EinVandaag website in the Netherlands surveyed general practitioners in the last week in July and found that Dutch doctors support it, though sometimes reluctantly. (The number of official notifications of deaths by euthanasia rose 13% to 2,636 in 2009, although many deaths are apparently not reported.)

Here is what the poll of 800 doctors found. The vast majority – 87% -- were willing in principle to participate in legal euthanasia. About 68% said that they had participated in euthanasia in the last 5 years. Of these, 29% did it once; 25% twice; 33% 3 to 5 times; and 11% more than 5 times.

Euthanasia is certainly on the agenda. In half of the doctors’ practices, euthanasia is a topic which is increasingly discussed. About 65% had felt pressure from patients or relatives to perform euthanasia and about half of them said that there was pressure to do it quickly. About a third of them felt that the pressure had increased over the last five years.

There was a limit for most of the doctors. About 74% said that they would not be willing to euthanase patients simply because they feared unbearable suffering. About 65% were not willing if patients are simply tired of living – although 20% were willing. In any case, such acts would be illegal, as euthanasia is only allowed if a patient is suffering unbearable pain from a terminal illness.

Most doctors are satisfied with the current state of euthanasia regulation in the Netherlands – about 76%. And in response to the statement “euthanasia has no place in a general practice”, 89% disagreed.

There is room for much confusion in a poll like this. In the Netherlands, terminal sedation is said to be displacing euthanasia to some extent. Several questions dealt with what the poll termed “palliative sedation”. About 90% had used this at some stage in the past 5 years. However, most doctors said that “palliative sedation” seldom led to the death of their patients.

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