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GPs asked to provide patients with medical reports for Dignitas

GPs are facing demands from patients for copies of medical reports to support them in assisted suicide - but have been warned by the GMC that this could lead to criminal prosecution.

Dr Gareth Bryant, medical secretary at Wessex LMC, told Pulse the LMC had recently been contacted by a GP for advice after a patient had asked for a copy of their medical reports to send to Dignitas, the Swiss organisation that facilitates assisted suicide.

Doctors are required to provide access to a patient’s records under the Data Protection Act 1998 if a ‘subject access request’ has been made.

However, new GMC draft guidance for fitness-to-practise decision-makers, due to be published later this year, advises it is a criminal offence for doctors to encourage or assist a person to commit or attempt suicide.

GPs should explain this to patients when faced with demands for medical records for this purpose, the guidance says.

The GMC told Pulse that GPs are required to provide medical records under the Data Protection Act. However, if a GP suspects this will be used for the purposes of assisted dying, the GP will be contravening the 1961 Suicide Act by providing the medical records.

Dr Bryant said GPs had to be ‘very cautious: the Suicide Act makes aiding suicide illegal. Although no-one has been prosecuted, the risk is there. We have to give access to medical records under the Data Protection Act, but GPs have to protect themselves against prosecution. It’s a very difficult ethical position.’

A spokesperson for Dignitas said that patients required a medical report from within the past four months in order to sufficiently make the case to Swiss authorities that assisted suicide should go ahead.

He added: ‘A GP denying the issue of a medical report would violate basic patient rights. I would imagine the GMC’s advice is probably in conflict with human rights laws. That’s something that would have to be established through a legal case.’

The Medical Protection Society said it had received around 100 member requests for advice on the issue of assisted dying over the past five years, while the Medical Defence Union said it had dealt with 20 in the past three years. An MPS spokesperson said GPs had expressed concerns about working within the law, maintaining confidentiality and protecting the GP-patient relationship at a time when the patient is most vulnerable.

There have been four GMC investigations since 2007 involving allegations that the doctor assisted a suicide. Two of these led to fitness-to-practise hearings. One resulted in the doctor being suspended while the other case was dropped because the suicide occurred in Canada, even though the doctor was registered in the UK.

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Readers' comments (4)

  • This is a superb example of GP's being held to account for anything in the world that might go wrong!
    I cannot legally withold medical records from a patient....nor can I legally provide them.
    GMC - get a grip on reality!

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  • This is like saying if I tied a patients shoelaces up as he got onto the plane I would take responsibility........

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  • The 1961 Suicide Act is unique in that there is a penalty for assisting someone in doing something that is not itself a crime!
    GPs in Scotland need not be legally concerned as the 1961 Suicide Act does not apply in Scotland where suicide was never a crime. Assisting in a suicide to the extent that it could be regarded as culpable homicide or even murder would obviously be a very different matter. Providing a report that might be given to Dignitas is clearly neither.
    The GMC are currently concerned about the legal aspects of this but if they were to make a specific rule that disregarded the legal position then GPs in Scotland would end up with the same potential problem.

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  • Increasingly people are handling copies of their own notes as an ongoing process.They have no obligation to say what they are going to use them for which makes the GMC position untenable. It can't be ethical for one group to be able use their medical information to end their life but others could not take autonomous decisions without involving GPs

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