Information Governance - Requests for Information from Dignitas
We have been made aware that Dignitas may contact a patients GP for information if that patient contacts them considering assisted suicide. How should you respond?
The Suicide Act provides that 'a person who aids, abets, counsels or procures the suicide of another, or an attempt by another to commit suicide, shall be liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years'.
According to the DPP’s guidance, among the factors which would determine a prosecution are:
- whether a person stood to benefit financially from assisting the suicide or was acting wholly out of compassion;
- if the individual wanting to die was deemed competent enough and had a 'clear and settled' wish to make such a decision. Particular attention would be paid to issues such as being under 18 or having a mental illness.
- whether the person was persuaded or pressured into committing suicide or if it was entirely their own decision.
Apparently status as a doctor is a factor in favour of the DPP prosecuting so we, as doctors, are at particular risk. Our advice is that if approached we must offer alternatives to suicide such as high quality palliative care and try to dissuade a patient from taking this course of action. You must record this clearly and the patient cannot influence what you write in the notes.
Another issue is that Dignitas may ask for a medical report. If you act on this knowing what it is for, then this could be seen as a criminal act. Therefore you should not issue a report. If the patient asks for a copy of his notes under the Data Protection Act then the request should be in writing and you should send the copy with a letter stating that you do not imply that, by providing the information, you are in agreement or aiding the patients decision to go to Dignitas.
Obviously a doctor may have a different ethical view but the advice above is given with the aim of avoiding risk of prosecution. Any doctor not taking the above line would need to fully understand the risks involved, including a custodial sentence.
The BMA have produced guidance on Responding to patient requests for assisted dying: guidance for doctors