NEW guidance is being developed for GMC case examiners on dealing with cases of alleged assisted suicide.
A working group has been established to develop draft guidance in response to the case of a patient who wished to know what advice or support, if any, doctors could give to patients who were considering ending their lives.
The guidance is intended help to fitness to practise decision makers in judging what action should be taken in such cases. There will be a public consultation on the draft guidance for GMC case examiners and the Investigation Committee in early 2012.
The guidance is being developed even though the number of cases involving allegations relating to doctors assisting in a death investigated by the GMC is very small. In the last 10 years there have been three cases, one resulting from a conviction for assisting suicide in British Colombia. None of the cases arise from a conviction for assisting suicide in the UK.
The guidance considers factors that might be relevant in determining the seriousness of each case in what might be considered as assisting a patient in ending their life but will not cover euthanasia (in which a doctor’s actions have directly led to a patient’s death), as this is already covered in current guidance for case examiners and the Investigation Committee.
Niall Dickson, the Chief Executive of the General Medical Council, said: "The issue of assisted suicide is complex and sensitive. We already have clear guidance for doctors that they must always act within the law and assisting or encouraging suicide remains a criminal offence. This guidance will not in any way change the legal position for doctors. It is not our role to take a position on whether or not the law should be changed; that is a matter for the relevant legislature.
"We recognise however that there are a range of actions which could be considered as assisting in a suicide, such as providing information to a patient about suicide or providing practical assistance for someone to travel to a clinic such as Dignitas. Some of these actions may not lead to criminal charges but may still lead to complaints to us about a doctor’s fitness to practise.
"We therefore think our decision makers will find it useful to have guidance about the factors they should consider when dealing with an allegation that a doctor has assisted a person to commit suicide. Doctors, patients and others may also find it helpful if we set out clearly how we will consider complaints in this area."