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MPS calls for clarity on assisted suicide

By Gareth Iacobucci

The Medical Protection Society has called for urgent clarification on GPs' legal position if they are asked to provide patients with medical records that may enable them to take their own life.

The organisation is concerned that GPs could face prosecution if they provide reports about patients' condition or fitness to travel in the knowledge that the information will be passed on to assisted suicide clinics like Dignitas in Switzerland.

Under Swiss law, clinics can only accept people who are terminally ill or suffering unbearably from symptoms that cannot be relieved, with patients requiring medical records and a certificate of fitness to travel before they can make an appointment.

The MPS, which has written to health secretary Andy Burnham over the issue, has also asked for clarification on whether doctors have a duty to inform the authorities if they are suspect or are aware that their patient is intending to take their own life by way of assisted suicide.

Dr Nick Clements, Head of Medical Services at the MPS, said: ‘Although patients in the UK have a legal right to request their medical records without giving a reason, if the patient is terminally ill the doctor may suspect that the patient is considering going elsewhere for an assisted suicide.

‘Therefore doctors need clarification over whether they are at risk of prosecution if they provide reports about the patient's condition or fitness to travel in the knowledge that this information will be passed on to clinics like Dignitas.'

He added: ‘It is clear that this is a complex legal and ethical issue and a delicate emotional matter - however, the law remains unchanged at present and doctors who find themselves in such circumstances should be cautious and seek the advice of their medical defence organisation before they take any steps.'

The issue of assisted suicide has risen to the top of the news agenda in recent weeks, with health professionals deeply divided over the issue.

Whilst the Royal College of Nursing has switched its stance to adopt a neutral position on the issue, the BMA recently passed a motion opposing the legalisation of assisted suicide at its annual representatives meeting, and the RCGP is expected to oppose legislation changes in an upcoming policy document.

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