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Restricting conversations about voluntary assisted dying: implications for clinical practice

Abstract

Objectives On 19 June 2019, assisted dying became lawful in Victoria, the second most populous state in Australia. Section 8 of the Voluntary Assisted Dying Act is a legislative safeguard that is designed to ensure a patient’s request for assistance to die is voluntary. This section prohibits health practitioners from initiating a conversation about assisted dying with the patient. This article explores the potential implications of this prohibition for effective communication between doctors and their patients, and the ability of doctors to provide high quality end-of-life (EOL) care in some cases.

Method The authors reviewed and analysed literature on the importance of communication at the EOL including the need to understand and appropriately respond to Desire to Die or Desire to Hasten Death statements. A legal critique of section 8 of the Victorian Voluntary Assisted Dying Act was also undertaken to determine the scope of this new duty and how it aligns with existing legal obligations that would otherwise require doctors to provide information about EOL options requested by a patient.

Results Contemporary literature suggests that open and honest communication between doctor and patient including the provision of information about all EOL options when sought by the patient represents good clinical practice and will lead to optimal EOL care. The provision of such information also reflects professional, ethical and legal norms.

Conclusion Despite (arguably) promoting an appropriate policy objective, the legislative prohibition on health professionals initiating conversations about voluntary assisted dying may, in cases where patients seek information about all EOL options, lead to less optimal patient outcomes.

  • end of life communication
  • desire to die
  • desire to hasten death
  • assisted dying
  • voluntary assisted dying
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