No Easy Way Out: A Case of Physician-Assisted Dying in the Emergency Department

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Currently, 1 out of 6 Americans lives within a jurisdiction in which physician-assisted dying is legally authorized. In most cases, patients ingest lethal physician-assisted dying medications at home without involvement of emergency medical services (EMS) or the emergency department (ED). However, occasionally the dying process is interrupted as a result of incomplete ingestion or vomiting of medications, confusion about timing of dying trajectory, familial emotional distress, and other variables. A case is presented here of a patient who arrived by ambulance to an urban ED after ingesting physician-assisted dying medication. Stepwise analysis of communication and actions between providers (paramedics, emergency physician, and admitting physician), risk management, and family are described chronologically. This case highlights the significant distress experienced by each party, as well as key challenges and learning points. Guidance is provided to emergency providers about expectations and communication. In states with limited physician-assisted dying experience, many EMS agencies, EDs, and hospitals require comprehensive protocols to handle the complex ethical and psychosocial issues surrounding physician-assisted dying in the ED.

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