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GPs go forth

GMC clarifies position on assisted dying

The GMC has told GPs to limit the information it gives to suicidal patients to an explanation that it is a criminal offence for them to encourage a person to commit suicide.

In new guidance issued this week, the regulator clarified its position on assisted suicide. It has issued a note for GPs to check through when faced with a patient asking for help to commit suicide.

It also makes clear what factors will be considered before bringing a fitness-to-practise hearing against a doctor who is under suspicion of helping a patient to die. These include: if the doctor knew or should have reasonably known that their actions would encourage or assist suicide; if a doctor had prescribed medication that was not clinically indicated or other practical assistance or information or advice about methods of committing suicide; the context and nature of support or information sought; and the intensity of encouragement or assistance.

The new guidance is the result of a three month consultation process, which came about as a response to the case of a disabled man, known as ‘AM’, who last year took legal action 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.

Niall Dickson, GMC chief executive, said: ‘Where patients raise the issue of assisted suicide, or ask for information that might encourage or assist them in ending their lives, GPs should explain that they cannot do so because providing this information would mean breaking the criminal law.’

‘It will help to make a fair and consistent decision when investigation allegations that a GP has helped a patient end their life.

‘Patients may also find our guidance helpful in understanding how we consider complains in this sensitive and complex area.’

Readers' comments (4)

  • Criminal law relating to suicide is dated and would have been strongly predicated by the assumption that nobody but God had the right to end life.

    In light of increasing atheism the law needs changing to recognize the rights of individuals to end their lives with controlled dignity.

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  • Re: 'Criminal law relating to suicide is dated' and the reference to God: The PROSCRIPTION of doctors aiding suicide however - goes back to 5-BC the time of the Hippocratic Oath - an oath of integrity for doctor that stood for a couple of thousand years and which I personally took i a solemn ceremony. Of course modern medicine does contravene the oath already eg. abortion and even certain surgery, assisted suicide really is a matter of life and death. Although I believe in ending pain with high dose narcotics(even if a threat to the patient) and of course in heavy sedation, to license doctors actively to end life, is imo utterly wrong whether apparently 'increasing atheism' is a factor or not. Patients may choose not to live and act to end life. Whether they should be able to buy for themselves convenient drugs to do this, is a completely different debate. Of course they should be allowed to refuse treatment or actively end their lives, but we doctors should be bound always to choose life. I believe a vote of all medically qualified doctors internationally would never vote for doctors to be allowed to help patients end their lives and we should certainly not current set of politicians push us in any way on this issue.

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  • I am concerned about people being coerced by their relatives. The high profile cases that we have heard about recently are not the issue but I fear allowing assisted suicide or whatever we are going to call will open the flood gates to all sorts of difficult moral dilemmas

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  • As a doctor I face moral dilemmas all the time. The latest one superimposed on GPs to financial gait keepers! How does it fell? Adding another one when actually as health practitioner my role is advising people on all options and giving them a choice I see as part of my role. Not to encourage euthanasia but support well informed and guarded way to choose to live or die if suffering is unbearable and life is limited anyway.

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