Look who's 'playing God'

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Which doctors 'play God' most with patient end of life decisions might surprise you

In two supplementary submissions to the Parliament of Western Australia, I report empirical evidence about the standards of end-of-life medical decision making in jurisdictions with and without voluntary assisted dying (VAD) laws. The evidence clearly contradicts the assumption of assisted dying opponents that legalised VAD will lead to worse end-of-life decision making by physicians. In fact, the evidence clearly shows which physicians are 'playing God' with their patients, and it's not the Dutch.

When I appeared as an expert witness before the Parliament of Western Australia's Joint Select Committee on end of life choices, the Hon. Nick Goiran, a staunch Christian opponent of VAD, asked me for evidence of bringing end of life decision making out of the 'dark shadows' and into the light in jurisdictions in which VAD is lawful.

Existing evidence

Of course, there's the clear evidence from both the Netherlands and Belgium that the rate of non-voluntary euthanasia (NVE) has dropped significantly and stayed lower after their Euthanasia Acts each came into effect in 2002. There's also the clear evidence that the rate of nurse administration of possible life-ending drugs has dropped significantly in Belgium with a VAD law, over a similar time period in which it had increased significantly in New Zealand, where there is no VAD law. These forms of evidence were already documented in the comprehensive submission (PDF 5.4Mb) I'd made to the Committee.

Training and decision making has improved (Supplementary 1)

Mr Goiran opined that any improvements in palliative care were not relevant to his question. In my first supplementary submission to the Committe (PDF 0.6Mb) to further inform it of the empirical evidence, I disagree. As I point out, VAD decisions are not made in a vacuum: they are made after other interventions have been considered and declined, or tried and failed to provide sufficient relief. Palliative care options are central to these considerations. Therefore, whether palliative care improves or deteriorates after VAD laws are introduced is crucial.

Adding to the body of knowledge about the quality of palliative care, in this first supplementary submission I report that Dutch and Belgian physicians attended palliative care professional training at vastly higher rates than most other countries in the several years after VAD was legislated.

I also report the research evidence showing increases in desirable end of life decision rates, and decreases in undesirable decision rates in both the Netherlands and Belgium.

Where decision making is best and worst (Supplementary 2)

In my second supplementary submission (PDF 0.2Mb), I report data from two careful scientific studies into end of life decision making by doctors across multiple countries, including the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy and Australia.

The results are striking: for clearly inappropriate decisions such as withholding chemotherapy or administering terminal sedation without consulting their mentally competent patient, the Netherlands was clearly the best performer with the lowest rates of these kinds of decisions amongst physicians. And who was the overall worst? Italy.

Yes, that jurisdiction that harbours the head office of the world's most actively VAD-opposing organisation, the Catholic church, and where 82% of physicians are Catholic, were by far the most likely overall to make medical end of life decisions about their mentally-competent patients without consulting either the patient or her family. Italian physicians were, respectively, more than five times, three times, and twice as likely as those from the Netherlands, Beligum or Switzerland, to make unilateral end of life decisions without consulting either the patient or her family.

So much for high moral standards under a more religiously-driven and VAD-opposing regime.

I also illustrate from another study how VAD decision making in the Flemish north of Belgium, where the rate of VAD deaths is higher, is significantly higher in quality than in the Walloon south.

Conclusion

The peer-reviewed research data currently available consistently and directly demonstrate improvements in end of life care education and decision making in jurisdictions with VAD compared with those that don't. In contradiction to VAD opponents' assumptions, it's Italian physicians — who largely oppose VAD — who tend to 'play God' most with their patients.

The evidence comprehensively supports the view that legalisation of VAD brings a wide range of end of life decision making out of the shadows and into the light, where critical and open appraisal results in significant improvements.


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