Without law, B.C. guides doctors on assisted death
VICTORIA – British Columbia’s health minister has stepped in to clear up some confusion for doctors in the province who may be asked to provide medical assistance in dying.
Monday is the deadline given by the Supreme Court of Canada for assisted dying legislation, making it legal to provide medical help in dying for a competent adult who has a grievous or irremediable medical condition.
But federal legislation hasn’t been passed by Parliament, so the provincial government has given legal weight to a set of standards created by the B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons to help make sure safeguards are in place to protect patients.
“Like all of the college’s professional standards, this is akin to policy reflecting what is expected of physicians, both ethically and professionally,” said Dr. Heidi Oetter, CEO of the college.
“It actually outlines, very specifically, what is expected of physicians.”
The standards were developed using the criteria for medically assisted death set out by the Supreme Court of Canada decision, Oetter said, adding the standards could change when the federal government’s new law comes into effect.
“We are following (the legislation) very closely and we’re making sure that we have a parallel document that we’re developing in concert, something that will match whatever the eventual law becomes,” she said.
B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake issued a statement saying doctors will be guided by the criteria set out in the high court’s ruling, allowing doctors to make sure safeguards are in place to protect vulnerable patients.
Lake said his government has also directed each provincial health authority to appoint a co-ordinator for medical assistance in dying.
“As this new service evolves, we will continue to strive towards providing those seeking medical assistance in dying with the same appropriate, accessible, patient-focused care British Columbians have come to expect from all health care services in this province,” he said.
Under the college’s standards, physicians who do not want to provide medically-assisted deaths will still be required to provide their patients with enough information to make an educated decision, including that the procedure is legally available.
Doctors who do not follow the college standards can have a complaint filed against them, which would prompt an investigation and possibly discipline, Oetter said.
While the college’s standards legally protect doctors who assist with medical deaths, they do not cover pharmacists and nurses who Oetter said are “imperative” in the process.
“It is a potential barrier and it’s one that we continue to work with our provincial partner to see how we can address those legitimate concerns,” she said.
Oetter noted that the college requires pharmacists to dispense drugs used in medically-assisted deaths to a physician instead of a patient.
“We’ve put that in specifically as an essential work around to perhaps give pharmacists more comfort that they are assisting the physicians, who are clearly exempted from the criminal code provision, as opposed to themselves,” she said.