Soundoff: Hospital ‘neutral’ on Death with Dignity

By Judy Moore

I feel compelled to clarify information in the Wednesday, March 4, Whidbey News-Times article regarding the Death With Dignity Act and Whidbey General Hospital.

First and foremost: There will be no services available at Whidbey General Hospital related to the newly enacted Death With Dignity (DWD) Act. Whidbey General Hospital is assuming a “neutral” role and is not actively supporting, encouraging or facilitating individual’s participation in actions allowed by the DWD Act.

Our objective is to provide education to our staff and providers regarding what the new law entails so they may accurately and truthfully respond to any questions posed by patients and families.

Here are some facts:

The DWD act applies only to individuals over 18 years of age, deemed by two physicians to have six months or less to live, and assessed to be mentally capable to make decisions about their health.

The individual must make their request verbally and in writing, meet a waiting period before any medication is provided, and cannot be assisted by anyone if they choose to consume medication that will end their life.

There are multiple checks and balances in the process, including forms to be completed by the physician, the pharmacy that provides the medication, and the individual—all of which must be registered with the state. Medications related to the act may not be mailed.

Individual physicians that participate must “opt in” as a participating provider, as do individual community pharmacists who dispense the medication. Since inception of a similar law in Oregon, there are fewer than 50 participating physicians in the state (i.e. the majority of physicians do not participate). It is the individual’s responsibility to find a physician and pharmacy that are “participating providers.” That may require them to look beyond their immediate community to find providers or pharmacies that will be participating.

Due to the criteria that need to be met, the waiting period, and the legal requirement of the individual self-administering medications, deaths associated with the DWD Act occur within the community, i.e. home, not within a hospital or facility.

Whidbey General Hospital will continue to strive for compassionate, safe, and quality care to patients regardless of where they may be in their life cycle. If an individual is experiencing a terminal illness, the focus of our care will continue to be controlling symptoms, preventing suffering, and maximizing the quality of one’s life—not taking any actions to hasten death.

This is a very personal issue, and often an emotional one. Every terminally ill individual, physician, and pharmacist will have to make their own decision about the DWD Act. Although the law became effective this week, it will take some time for health care providers to become familiar with the newly published rules. Additional information about the law may be found at the following Web sites: Washington State Dept. of Health, Washington State Hospital Association, and Compassion and Choices of Washington.

Judy Moore, RN, MN, is co-chair of the Clinical Ethics Committee at Whidbey General Hospital.

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