Newly published GMC guidance clarifies how doctors and investigators should approach assisted suicide
Almost a year after its consultation closed, the UK General Medical Council issued on 31 January its guidance about what doctors can and cannot do with patients who consult them about assistance with suicide.
Contrary to the spin suggested by Dignity in Dying (the former Voluntary Euthanasia Society) and its satellite, Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying, the only clarification which could remotely be seen as a concession is that doctors who respond to a valid request and solely hand over the medical records required by Dignitas for confirmation of diagnosis are unlikely to face sanction by the GMC.
Otherwise, the 6-page guidance for the GMC's pre-hearing investigators 'considering allegations about a doctor's involvement in encouraging or assisting suicide' upholds the law as it stands and sends no signals at all to suggest the profession endorses assistance with suicide. Although of course the GMC recognises its neutral role and states 'Nothing… should…be taken to imply that the GMC supports or opposes a change in…law', the guidance helpfully underlines the law and the profession's position.
Action concerning a doctor's fitness to practise is certain when:
and probable when
Also likely to lead to action are:
Guidance follows about 'realistic prospects' for proof, and the only 'Allegations that will not normally give rise to a question of impaired fitness to practise' because of their lawfulness or their distance from the encouragement or assistance include:
Wisely, the GMC has also released shorter 2-page guidance aimed at patients and those close to them, which summarises the principles and the legal limits detailed for doctors.
Clarifying that 'respect for a patient's autonomy cannot justify illegal action', doctors should 'limit any advice or information about suicide to an explanation that it is a criminal offence to encourage or assist a person to commit or attempt suicide'.
The position of doctors is now clear to all and does not need changing.