Doctors must be mindful of assisted suicide involvement

PRESS RELEASE

For immediate release: Friday, 5 June 2015

Doctors are reminded to avoid taking any action that may be interpreted as encouraging or assisting a patient’s suicide, says UK-wide medical defence organisation MDDUS.

Last week, 54-year-old father of three Jeffrey Spector was the latest Brit to travel to Zurich to die with the help of Dignitas, reigniting the debate about whether assisted suicide should be legalised in Britain.

Almost 300 people from the UK have ended their life through Dignitas, with renewed calls for legislation which would allow doctors in England and Wales to prescribe life ending drugs for terminally ill people with less than six months to live. The issue was also debated – and rejected – last week in Scotland.

The Suicide Act (1961) states that it is illegal to encourage or assist a person to commit suicide and such an offence is punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

Regardless of individual views on the issue, MDDUS medical adviser Dr Naeem Nazem reminds doctors that they cannot aid or abet a patient who requests assistance to commit suicide.

“The act of committing suicide is not illegal, but it is illegal to help a patient to end their life,” says Dr Nazem. “Doctors must not feel pressurised by a patient or their family to assist a suicide. They should also avoid any discussions on travelling abroad to a country where assisted suicide is legal.

“If faced with a patient seeking advice about assisted suicide, doctors should explain that they would be breaking the law and would face criminal charges if they were to help.

“Medical professionals should also exercise care when considering requests for medication, medical reports or copies of medical records. Specifically, if there is suspicion that the purpose of the request is to assist a patient’s suicide.

“Doctors should make it clear that they are unable to co-operate due to their own legal and ethical obligations. In such circumstances, they should contact their medical defence organisation for further support and assistance.”

These issues do not prevent a doctor showing compassion and providing patients with appropriate care at the end of their life. “There is a clear distinction between palliative care for a dying patient and assisting a patient wanting to end their life,” says Dr Nazem.

“When providing end of life care, patients should be encouraged to raise their concerns and fears. Doctors should engage in an open and frank discussion with each patient, developing a plan for future treatment that includes the patient’s wishes for when they are no longer able to make decisions.”

The GMC guidance entitled When a patient seeks advice or information about assistance to die states: “Where patients raise the issue of assisting suicide, or ask for information that might encourage or assist them in ending their lives, respect for a patient’s autonomy cannot justify illegal action.”

Ends

For further information contact Richard Hendry on 0845 270 2034 or 07976 272266, or email rihendry@mddus.com.

Note to editors

MDDUS (The Medical and Dental Defence Union of Scotland) is a medical and dental defence organisation providing access to professional indemnity and expert medico- and dento-legal advice for doctors, dentists and other healthcare professionals throughout the UK.

For further information on MDDUS go to www.mddus.com.