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Originally published Thursday, March 10, 2011 at 5:18 PM

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Use of state's Death with Dignity law rises slightly

Eighty-seven patients used Washington's Death with Dignity Law last year, up slightly from 2009, the first year of the law, which allows terminally-ill patients to request and obtain lethal medication from their doctors.

Seattle Times health reporter

Information

The 2010 Death with Dignity report: www.doh.wa.gov/dwda/forms/DWDA2010.pdf

The law: http://apps.leg.wa.gov/RCW/default.aspx?cite=70.245

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Use of the state's Death with Dignity law grew slightly in the law's second year, with at least 51 terminally ill patients dying from lethal doses of legally prescribed medication, compared to 36 in 2009.

The law, which allows a doctor to write a prescription for lethal medication for mentally sound, terminally ill patients, went into effect on March 5, 2009, so statistics from that year include only 10 months, noted the state Department of Health, which compiles the statistics.

Last year, a total of 87 terminally ill patients requested and obtained lethal doses, compared to 65 in 2009. Not all patients who obtain lethal doses ingest them, and some die from underlying conditions.

In 2010, of the 72 patients who received the prescriptions and are known to have died, 51 self-administered the lethal medication and 15 died of their underlying disease. For 6 others, it's not yet known whether they took the lethal dose.

There were few surprises in this year's report, which largely echoed the experiences of this state's first year and of the early years in Oregon, where doctors legally have been able to help certain patients die for more than 13 years.

Most Washington patients who acquired the prescriptions last year had terminal cancer, more than 90 percent lived west of the Cascades, most were white and most had some college education. Eight-eight percent had private or public insurance, and all were between age 52 and 99.

Most who used their lethal doses had expressed concern about loss of autonomy as the reason for requesting the drug, their doctors said.

Robb Miller, executive director of Compassion & Choices of Washington, which advises patients and doctors about the 2009 law, said he was pleased to see that the number of doctors participating had grown from 53 last year to 68. "During the campaign, our opponents said there will be a couple of 'Dr. Deaths' in Washington but it won't be embraced by medical professionals."

In fact, Miller said, helping terminally ill patients who request aid in dying is steadily becoming the "standard of care."

"It's no tsunami of participation, but it does indicate that in both years there were a lot of different participating physicians."

The Department of Health, which compiles the forms that must be submitted under the law, said no complications of the lethal drugs were reported, and emergency medical services were not called for any patients who took the drugs.

The vast majority died at home, and 84 percent were enrolled in hospice care.

Patients who use the law represent a tiny fraction of the approximately 48,000 who die each year in Washington. Dr. Tom Preston, a medical director for the Compassion & Choices, said in a statement that aid in dying is infrequent, but the law provides "peace of mind and comfort" to patients and families.

"The reports required under the [law] confirm the safety of physician aid in dying," Preston said. "The law is working exactly as voters intended."

Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or costrom@seattletimes.com

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