Doctors can provide records to patients seeking assisted suicide

27 February 2012

DOCTORS are allowed to supply medical records to patients who wish to end their lives provided they do not encourage them to do so, according to new draft guidance from the General Medical Council.

The guidance makes it clear that doctors who provide records in response to valid requests from patients under the Data Protection Act will not normally face disciplinary proceedings for assisting a suicide.

Patients who travel to Switzerland for assisted suicide must provide a copy of their medical notes. But some UK doctors refuse such requests from patients if they suspect they may be seeking to end their life, even though patients have a legal right to the information.

The draft guidance, aimed at GMC case examiners, seeks to clarify the situation by explaining actions that could give rise to disciplinary proceedings as well as those that will “not normally give rise to a question of fitness to practise”.

The regulator explains that doctors are allowed to give patients advice or information relating to the law as well as providing information or evidence for legal proceedings. But if a patient raises the issue of assisted suicide or asks for information that might encourage or assist, doctors should explain that “they cannot do so because providing information would mean breaking the criminal law.”

The GMC acknowledges the difficult position some doctors will find themselves in as they will have a duty to continue providing care for patients asking for information about assisted suicide and “will face challenges in assuring that patients do not feel abandoned”.

Case examiners and investigators will be expected to consider the intensity of the encouragement or assistance offered by the doctors and to assess whether it was “persistent, active and instrumental, or minor and peripheral.”

Some actions that might raise concerns over a doctor’s fitness to practise include helping someone travel to a place where they might be assisted in dying or prescribing a drug when the doctor knew or should reasonably have known that the patient intended to commit suicide.

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