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However, new GMC draft guidance for fitness-to-practise decision-makers, due to be published later this year, advises it is a criminal offence for doctors to encourage or assist a person to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