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Where to from here for the review of AMA policy on euthanasia and physician assisted suicide?

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On 27 May Dr Michael Gannon (who would be elected AMA President two days later) chaired a forum on assisted dying (euthanasia and physician assisted suicide) at the 2016 AMA National Conference in Canberra.

The session, moderated by Tony Jones of the ABC’s Q&A program, included contributions from a panel of four medical practitioners, Emeritus Professor Bob Douglas, Dr Karen Hitchcock, Professor Malcolm Parker and Associate Professor Mark Yates, as well as AVANT medico-legal expert Georgie Haysom.

The session was well-received. Both panellists and members of the audience passionately but respectfully expressed views both supporting, and opposing, doctor involvement in assisted dying.

Discussion focussed on a broad spectrum of issues including:

  • the role of patient autonomy, choice and individual rights;
  • the treatment of the elderly, the disabled and others requiring care;  
  • the perception of becoming a ‘burden’ to others in relation to disease progression, disability or ageing;
  • the concept of ‘suffering’, the fear of dying ‘badly’ and the effect a ‘bad’ death has on family members;
  • the difficulty of distinguishing euthanasia and physician assisted suicide from suicide generally;
  • the role of palliative care in supporting patients and families, the need for more education and training, and recognition of the wider health care team, including pastoral and spiritual care;
  • the impact on community perception of the medical profession should the role of the doctor allow for providing euthanasia and/or physician assisted suicide;
  • different models of assisted dying legislation such as the Oregon law (based on physician assisted suicide); and
  • the need to improve doctor knowledge of the law in relation to end of life care; for example, it is within the law for a doctor to provide treatment to a patient with the primary intention of alleviating the patient’s suffering that has a secondary effect of hastening death.

While opinions clearly diverged on whether or not doctors should be involved in euthanasia and/or physician assisted suicide, there appeared to be consensus on at least one major issue – the medical profession can do better to support patients and their family members at the end of life.

For those who would like to view the National Conference session, it can be accessed on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eQGNkOGpuUw.

Where to from here for the review of AMA policy on euthanasia and physician assisted suicide?

The results of the recent AMA member survey on euthanasia and physician assisted suicide are being collated and will initially be discussed by the AMA’s Federal Council at its upcoming meeting in August. Members will be informed of the survey results when Federal Council has had sufficient opportunity to review them.

Along with the survey, Federal Council will consider the issues raised during the other major member consultation initiatives – the 2016 National Conference session and last year’s Australian Medicine consultation on the current AMA policy.

Federal Council will also consider background information on national and international opinions and relevant legislative initiatives before making a policy decision in relation to euthanasia and physician assisted suicide. Federal Council is likely to undertake these deliberations over their next two meetings.

The AMA has endeavoured to make this policy review transparent and inclusive to allow a wide range of member views to be heard.

We will keep members informed of the review’s progress and appreciate your patience and participation throughout the review process.

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