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40% of GPs would help patients to die if legal

Almost half of all GPs would be willing to help one of their patients die if physician-assisted suicide was legal.

The level of willingness to be involved with a patient's death is surprisingly high and conflicts with the BMA's understanding of doctors' views.Pulse's medical ethics survey of 309 GPs found 42% would be prepared to help a patient die if the law allowed it, and 30% would actively support a change in the law to make physician-assisted suicide legal.There was some suggestion the current generation of GPs was more supportive of assisted suicide than colleagues over the age of 65, although the number of older doctors in the survey was small.A spokesperson for the BMA said: 'This is a very sensitive issue and doctors have varying views on it. At the moment our position is we are opposed to physician-assisted suicide. At the moment the majority of doctors are opposed.'But the survey found startlingly liberal views on the role of a doctor in end-of-life care.Four out of five GPs said they could justify withholding life-preserving treatment from patients and more than half had done so. Three-quarters could justify giving doses of painkilling medication they knew could hasten death, and again more than half had done so.Dr Harry Yoxall, secretary of Somerset LMC, is strongly opposed to physician-assisted suicide. He said: 'I think there are some moral absolutes and this is one of them, but I'm old-fashioned. I think quite a lot of older doctors might have the view that we're there to save lives.'But others see a change in law coming with a matching change in society.Dr Peter Jolliffe, chief executive of Devon LMC, said: 'My personal view would be there are times in life where suicide is a perfectly logical, sensible and understandable thing to do.'But he added: 'If society goes that route I don't see that it would have to be a doctor who administered the pill – I would find it difficult to do so.'But on one thing all GPs appear to agree – better palliative care would eliminate much of the need for assisted suicide.

dcressey@cmpmedica.com

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