What’s it like to participate in medical aid in dying from a physician’s perspective? It’s not easy to figure out, because current regulations intentionally hide the identities of participating physicians.

A clever team of researchers from the University of Colorado School of Medicine devised a way to survey the Colorado physicians who are most likely to care for patients looking for help with medical aid in dying. They sent anonymous surveys to a total of 583 physicians and received 300 completed surveys back. (If you’ve ever run a survey before, you’ll recognized that as an astounding return rate!) Their goal was to examine the nature, extent, and consequences of physicians’ participation in medical aid in dying.

What the survey revealed: More than half of the survey respondents had discussed medical aid in dying with a patient. More than 80 percent of physicians in their sample were willing to discuss medical aid in dying with patients and to provide referrals to other physicians who offered help with medical aid in dying. If you are considering medical aid in dying, you will probably find those numbers comforting. Fewer doctors were prepared and willing to serve as attending physicians (the one who leads the process and writes the prescription) or consulting physicians (the second doctor who assesses the eligibility of patients and reports back to the attending physician) and still fewer have actually provided these services. Medical aid in dying consulting and attending physicians largely reported the experience to be emotionally fulfilling and professionally rewarding, but all respondents reported multiple barriers to participation, including lack of knowledge about medical aid in dying and the emotional and time investments required.

I trust that as medical aid in dying becomes more common, those barriers – especially lack of knowledge – will become less of an issue. If physicians are having trouble finding the information they need to feel comfortable with medical aid in dying, the can get a free, confidential consultation from an experienced medical professional via Compassion & Choices’ Doc2Doc resource. I suspect other resources are also available to provide information to physicians, but a quick search of the internet didn’t uncover much.

Being a curious person, I love to delve into the data in research papers like this and discover interesting tidbits. For example, reading the details in this study, I learned that female physicians were significantly more likely than their male counterparts to have provided a medical aid in dying referral. I wonder why that is.

If you like to explore the details, too, you can read the paper yourself: “Physicians’ Attitudes and Experiences with Medical Aid in Dying in Colorado: a “Hidden Population” Survey,” which was published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine in January 2022.

The lead investigator for the study was Eric G. Campbell, PhD, professor of medicine and director of research for the CU Center for Bioethics and Humanities. “The goal of this survey was to provide unbiased, scientifically rigorous, empirical data to inform the ongoing debate on medical aid in dying,” said Dr. Campbell.

When my husband, Alan, made the decision to apply for medical aid in dying, he was lucky to be in the care of a large, well-organized health services provider. The organization had already dealt with multiple applications for medical aid in dying, and their system for dealing with those requests had been well honed. They made it easy for us to understand the steps we needed to take and who we needed to contact. But since Alan’s death, I have talked with others who struggled to find a physician willing to help their loved ones with medical aid in dying and a second physician willing to act as the consulting doctor.

I applaud Dr. Campbell and his team for shedding light on the views and behaviors of physicians who participate in medical aid in dying. The more we know about their attitudes and the barriers they perceive, the easier it will be to clear those roadblocks make medical aid in dying more widely available.