Papers

Doctors' opinions on euthanasia, end of life care, and doctor-patient communication: telephone survey in France

BMJ 2003; 327 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.327.7415.595 (Published 11 September 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:595
  1. P Peretti-Watel, researcher (peretti{at}marseille.inserm.fr)1,
  2. M K Bendiane, researcher2,
  3. H Pegliasco, chairman3,
  4. J M Lapiana, director of palliative care centre4,
  5. R Favre, professor5,
  6. A Galinier, consultant6,
  7. J P Moatti, professor7
  1. 1 Regional Center for Disease Control of South-Eastern France, 13006 Marseille, France
  2. 2 Health and Medical Research National Institute, Research Unit 379, Social Sciences Applied to Medical Innovation, Institut Paoli Calmettes, Marseille,
  3. 3 Departmental Center of Private Health Professionals, Marseille
  4. 4 La Maison, Gardanne, France
  5. 5 Assistance Publique Hôpitaux de Marseille, Service of Medical Oncology, Marseille
  6. 6 Assistance Publique-Hôpitaux de Marseille, Department of Penitentiary Care, Marseille, France
  7. 7 Department of Economics, University of Aix-Marseille II, France
  1. Correspondence to: P Peretti-Watel
  • Accepted 28 July 2003

Introduction

During the past decade, the debate about legalising euthanasia has grown in many developed countries, including France. Medical journals have reflected this: surveys have assessed doctors' attitudes toward euthanasia and bioethics articles have discussed the pros and cons. Supporters of legalisation argue that euthanasia is a continuation of palliative care and that doctors must respect patients' autonomy, including a wish to die.1 The latter argument suggests that cultural differences shape opinions about euthanasia, because the emphasis on autonomy is greater in English speaking countries than in other developed countries.2 3

We assessed French doctors' opinions toward euthanasia and collected data about their attitudes and practices. We compared medical specialties which demand different amounts of palliative care and different amounts of empathy toward and communication with terminally ill patients.

Participants, methods, and results

In 2002, the Regional Center for Disease Control of South-Eastern France and the Health and Medical Research National Institute did a telephone survey of a sample of doctors, stratified by specialty. We selected general practitioners, oncologists, and neurologists randomly from all French doctors, kept on file by the National Health Insurance Fund.

We investigated respondents' involvement in end of life care and palliative care, their attitude toward terminally ill patients, and whether “euthanasia should be legalised, as in the Netherlands.” We compared medical specialties with Pearson's χ2.

We contacted 1552 doctors, and 917 (59%) agreed to participate. Response rate was greater for oncologists (217/261; 83%) and neurologists (198/287; 69%) than for general practitioners (502/1004; 50%). Doctors who did not respond were generally too busy; they did not differ in sex, age, or size of town from respondents.

Only a minority of respondents were trained in palliative care, especially neurologists (24/198; 12.1%). Oncologists treated more terminally ill patients during the past year (mean 26.3 patients v 9.4 for neurologists and 7.0 for general practitioners; P < 0.05), and general practitioners practised less often in palliative care units (table). Oncologists were less likely to feel uncomfortable with terminally ill patients (7.8% v 16.7% among general practitioners and 27.8% among neurologists; P < 0.001) and more prone to systematically communicate the objectives of treatment (65.9% v 57.2% among general practitioners and 47.0% among neurologists; P < 0.01) and the diagnosis to competent terminally ill patients. Oncologists were also less in favour of legalising euthanasia (35.5% v 44.8% of general practitioners and 46.5% of neurologists; P < 0.05).

French doctors' involvement in end of life care and palliative care, their attitude to and communication with patients, and their opinion on legalising euthanasia, 2002. Values are numbers (percentages) unless otherwise stated

View this table:

Comment

Many French doctors want euthanasia to be legalised. This opinion is more common among general practitioners and neurologists than among oncologists, who are more experienced in end of life care, more frequently trained in palliative care, and show greater comfort and better communication with terminally ill patients. Because most proponents of legalisation argue that euthanasia is a continuation of end of life care and that doctors should respect patients' autonomy, including a wish to die, we expected to find the reverse.

Our study has several limitations. Answering questions about a sensitive topic on the telephone can be difficult, a questionnaire with a fixed choice of answers prevented doctors from qualifying or justifying their responses, and we lacked detailed information about doctors who did not respond.

Previous studies found similar patterns, but the French counterparts to Italian general practitioners and US oncologists were more in favour of legalising euthanasia.3 4 Our findings contradict the argument that opinions on euthanasia are related to cultural differences in English speaking countries; comparative studies are needed.2 In France, the support shown for euthanasia may be due to a lack of professional knowledge on palliative care.5 Improving such knowledge would improve end of life care and may also clarify the debate over euthanasia.

Acknowledgments

We thank H Granier, Y Obadia, B Planchet-Barraud, F Ravallec, M Rotily, and O Priolo.

Footnotes

  • Contributors MKB, HP, JML, RF, and AG designed the survey and reviewed and improved the paper. JPM and PP-W did the statistical analysis and wrote the paper. PP-W is guarantor.

  • Funding Departmental Centre of Private Health Professionals (grant from the fund for improving ambulatory care), Assistance Publique-Hôpitaux de Marseilles (within the hospital programme for clinical research), and Cancer Research Foundation (ARC).

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Ethical approval Not needed.

References

View Abstract