Psychiatric patients requesting euthanasia: Guidelines for sound clinical and ethical decision making
Since Belgium legalised euthanasia, the number of performed euthanasia cases for psychological suffering in psychiatric patients has significantly increased, as well as the number of media reports on controversial cases. This has prompted several healthcare organisations and committees to develop policies on the management of these requests.
Five recent initiatives that offer guidance on euthanasia requests by psychiatric patients in Flanders were analysed: the protocol of Ghent University Hospital and advisory texts of the Flemish Federation of Psychiatry, the Brothers of Charity, the Belgian Advisory Committee on Bioethics, and Zorgnet-Icuro. These were examined via critical point-by-point reflection, focusing on all legal due care criteria in order to identify: 1) proposed measures to operationalise the evaluation of the legal criteria; 2) suggestions of additional safeguards going beyond these criteria; and 3) remaining fields of tension.
The initiatives are well in keeping with the legal requirements but are often more stringent. Additional safeguards that are formulated include the need for at least two positive advices from at least two psychiatrists; an a priori evaluation system; and a two-track approach, focusing simultaneously on the assessment of the patient's euthanasia request and on that person's continuing treatment. Although the initiatives are similar in intent, some differences in approach were found, reflecting different ethical stances towards euthanasia and an emphasis on practical clinical assessment versus broad ethical reflection.
All initiatives offer useful guidance for the management of euthanasia requests by psychiatric patients. By providing information on, and proper operationalisations of, the legal due care criteria, these initiatives are important instruments to prevent potential abuses. Apart from the additional safeguards suggested, the importance of a decision-making policy that includes many actors (e.g. the patient's relatives and other care providers) and of good aftercare for the bereaved are rightly stressed. Shortcomings of the initiatives relate to the aftercare of patients whose euthanasia request is rejected, and to uncertainty regarding the way in which attending physicians should manage negative or conflicting advices, or patients' suicide threats in case of refusal. Given the scarcity of data on how thoroughly and uniformly requests are handled in practice, it is unclear to what extent the recommendations made in these guidelines are currently being implemented.