Doctors for the terminally ill are most against assisted dying

Doctors who look after the terminally ill are most against changing the law to allow assisted dying

  • Student medics are among those most in favour of assisted dying legislation
  • Survey shows doctors who care for terminally ill are most opposed to law change
  • Speculation grows that the BMA may soon drop its opposition to assisted dying  

Doctors who care for the terminally ill are most opposed to changing the law to allow assisted dying, a study has revealed.

By contrast, medics who usually have the least contact with dying patients – such as students, dermatologists and child psychiatrists – appear to be most in favour of legislation that would permit doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs.

There has been growing speculation the British Medical Association may soon drop its longstanding opposition to assisted dying.

Doctors who care for the terminally ill are most opposed to changing the law to allow assisted dying, a study has revealed [File photo]

When the BMA published the results of a survey of 29,000 of its members last month, it said 50 per cent of members believed there should be a change in the law, with 39 per cent opposed. However, an analysis of the poll paints a more nuanced picture.

It shows that 76 per cent of specialists in palliative medicine were against assisted dying. More than half (52 per cent) of doctors working in geriatric medicine and 50 per cent of those who treat cancer patients were also opposed.

Most support appeared to come from medical students and retired doctors. According to the BMA figures, 62 per cent of medical students and 55 per cent of retired doctors were in favour of legalisation.

Doctors working in specialities with limited contact with the terminally ill were more inclined to be in favour of assisted dying. Among dermatologists, 54 per cent were in favour of changing the current law. It was almost half for paediatricians and 57 per cent for child psychiatrists. All forms of assisted dying are illegal in the UK and any doctor found to have helped a patient end their life can be jailed for up to 14 years.

Dr Gordon Macdonald, chief executive of Care Not Killing, which opposes assisted dying and carried out the analysis of the BMA poll, said there was a ‘worrying split’ between doctors who cared for terminally ill or elderly patients and those who do not.

‘This divide is especially acute when you look at students, who are still in training and lack the experience of practising GPs, palliative care doctors and oncologists,’ he said. 

‘I know that this divide will be considered carefully by the British Medical Association and their members.’

Crossbench peer and former palliative care doctor Baroness Ilora Finlay said she was ‘unsurprised’ by the opposition from doctors who treat patients close to death.

‘The decisions as to whether somebody should be given lethal drugs to end their life prematurely are not decisions for doctors – they rest mainly on social factors,’ she added.

‘Doctors don’t want that power and they have seen in some of the countries how legislation of this type becomes rapidly expanded.’

But retired psychiatrist Colin Brewer, from My Death My Decision, which campaigns for the legalisation of assisted dying, claimed palliative care doctors were influenced by religious charities and were out of step with public opinion.

‘The basic problem is that while about 90 per cent of British patients want the option of assisted dying, about 90 per cent of British palliative care doctors don’t want them to have it,’ he said. ‘It’s a peculiarly British problem because in most countries, many palliative care doctors agree that their patients should have that option.’

Dr John Chisholm, BMA medical ethics committee chairman, said the survey did not commit the union to changing its stance on assisted dying, which could be done only through an official vote.

A BMA spokesman also said that statistically the attitudes of dermatologists, paediatricians and child and adolescent psychiatrists were not significantly different from those of doctors surveyed as a whole.

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