Keck Medical Center of USC will comply with a new state law that permits terminally ill patients to request and administer medication to end their life.

The End of Life Option Act allows physicians to prescribe the powerful medication under a set of strict guidelines that must be followed by health care professionals and the patient.

Keck Medical Center physicians will have the option to opt out of prescribing the medication to a patient and instead refer them to another physician, said palliative medicine physician Sunita Puri, MD, assistant professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

“Our medical center seeks to respond to this issue in a compassionate way, not only for our patients and families, but for our colleagues and staff,” Puri said during a Town Hall on June 6 at Aresty Auditorium, where the End of Life Option Act was discussed with physicians.

California’s End of Life Option Act took effect on June 9. California follows other states with so-called Death with Dignity laws, including Oregon, Washington and Vermont. Oregon in 1997 became the first state to enact a physician-assisted dying law. Since the law took effect, 1,545 patients have been prescribed the medication and 991 have died from ingesting the medications, according the data published in February by the Oregon Health Authority.

Any Keck Medical Center physician who chooses to opt out of a patient’s request will be supported by their colleagues and hospital leadership, Puri said.

“This act raised concerns among many people and that’s understandable,” Puri said. “Physicians are completely protected if they decide to opt out.”

The medication, secobarbital, can only be prescribed to patients under rules set by state law. In order to receive a prescription, patients must be older than 18 and diagnosed with an incurable and irreversible disease that has been medically confirmed and will, within reasonable medical judgment, result in death within six months, according to state law. The medication will only be available to established Keck Hospital and USC Norris patients per hospital policy. Patients must make two oral requests 15 days apart and a written request to the attending physician, by state law. The medication cannot be ingested by a patient on Keck Medical Center property, although the initial request can be made if the patient is hospitalized at Keck Medical Center, according to hospital policy.

The state law requires physicians, prior to prescribing the medication, to give advice to the patient on other end of life care options and refer them to a consulting physician. The consulting physician must be independent from the attending physician and not be related to the patient. A referral to a mental health specialist must also be made, if necessary.

In a recent survey among Keck Medical Center medical staff, 62 percent of participants said they support the act, and 64 percent would not be opposed to patients taking the aid in dying drug at Keck Hospital or USC Norris.

There will be mandatory trainings for physicians willing to serve as attending or consulting physicians.

Feedback from physicians is critical, said Stephanie Hall, MD, chief medical officer of Keck Medicine of USC.

“We urge continued communications from physicians so we can continue to model our policy around how the Keck Medicine of USC community wants to see this work,” she said.

— Douglas Morino