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How the Death with Dignity law is being used in Washington

A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found most patients who use physician-assisted death have been diagnosed with terminal cancer. (AP Photo/File)

In 2008, Washington voters passed a referendum on “Death with Dignity” allowing doctor-assisted death when patients are dealing with a fatal disease, like end-stage cancer. Now, we’re getting our fist look at how the law is being used.

In an article published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers looked at Death with Dignity cases from March 2009 through December 2011 at Seattle’s Cancer Care Alliance.

During that time period, 255 people in Washington state were prescribed the medication to participate in the program.

At the Cancer Care Alliance, 114 patients asked about information on physician-assisted death, 40 of them received the prescription, but only 24 ended up taking the drug.

“Our advocates, the people who work closely with the patients during this process, have reported that patients and their families are expressing gratitude for having the medication, even if they eventually never take it,” says Oncologist Dr. Elizabeth Trice-Loggers.

Trice-Loggers says when they do discuss Death with Dignity, it’s usually during a larger conversation about hospice care, choices for handling varying levels of pain, and other issues.

“Our mission hasn’t changed. We are trying to cure cancer, and we view every death as a tragedy. But we also know that we can’t cure cancer every time,” says Trice-Loggers.

There are about 12,000 deaths per year due to cancer in Washington. Trice-Loggers says the people who participate in Death with Dignity are a very small percentage of that.

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