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GPs should limit suicide information they give to patients, says GMC

The GMC is set to publish new guidance aimed at fitness to practise decision-makers on how totreat complaints and information about doctors who are alleged to have helped patients commit suicide.

The new guidance, to be released later this year, says that when considering an allegation of a doctor ‘encouraging or assisting suicide’, assessors should consider whether there is a ‘realistic prospect of establishing that a doctor’s fitness to practise is impaired to a degree justifying action on their registration.’

Assessors are advised to consider the ‘intensity of the encouragement or assistance, whether it was persistent, active or instrumental or minor or peripheral,’ the guidance states.

It also says doctors should limit the information they give to patients to an explanation that it is a criminal offence for them to encourage or assist a person to commit or attempt suicide.

The new guidance, which was consulted on earlier this year, has been developed in response to the case of a disabled man, known as ‘AM’, who last year brought a case against the GMC, the director of Public Prosecutions, and the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

He argued none of the organisations were sufficiently clear about the criteria they would use to assess whether to bring a prosecution or take action on a health professional’s registration if they were to help him to understand the options he had to end his life.

Following discussions with AM’s solicitors the GMC agreed to develop guidance for case examiners and the Investigation Committee.

The GMC said the guidance will also be available for doctors to use as ‘a guide to the boundaries of acceptable practice in this difficult area.’

Readers' comments (2)

  • The difference between informing and encouraging is often vexed, and definitely located in a grey area, at least until the whole thing has been debated and submitted to legal testing. Practitioners had the same problem some years ago with contraception: Did its provision constitute encouragement to be promiscuous? However, doctors, like teacers, are in the business of providing information, not witholdng it.

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  • This is the infromation era and no one can withold information from patients; this is also their life and their choice. We are told not to encourage or discourage anythin and give patients 'options'. If someone chooses to end their life, they can simply google it and find out how.

    If the patient is unable to gather the information from the internet or other sources due to disability or lack of skills, and we withold information, what happens to the 'informed decision making' and 'patients choice'?! I think it's cruel not to inform the patient, of course without encouragement or discouragement!

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