Exclusive: Fifth of GPs would help a terminally ill patient end their life if law allowed it

One in five GPs would help a terminally ill patient end their life if the law changed to allow this, a GPonline poll suggests.

Overall, GPs remain opposed to the legalisation of assisted dying, although many would support a change in UK law to allow it in some circumstances.

A total of 38% of the 312 GPs who responded to a question on assisted dying said they believed it should be legalised in some circumstances, with 46% opposed and 16% unsure.

Three out of 10 GPs (30%) said that in some circumstances assisted dying should be available on the NHS, and 37% said they would be prepared to refer a terminally ill patient for help to end their life if the law allowed it. Just 47% of GPs ruled this out, with 17% unsure.

Assisted dying

But significantly, almost one in five GPs (19%) confirmed they would be prepared personally to assist a terminally ill patient to die if this was permitted under UK law. A total of 60% said they would not be prepared to do so, and 21% said they did not know.

A change in UK law looks unlikely to be imminent, after MPs voted last year to reject a proposed Assisted Dying Bill by an overwhelming 330 votes to 118. The bill would have allowed doctors to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to dying patients who requested them, although patients would have been expected to take the drugs themselves, without medical assistance.

MPs threw out the bill only after it had been backed earlier in the year by the House of Lords, progressing further through stages in parliament than any previous piece of legislation on assisted dying.

When the bill was eventually rejected by MPs, GP leaders urged the government to turn its attention to improving palliative care rather than focusing on the possible legalisation of assisted dying.

GPC deputy chairman Dr Richard Vautrey told GPonline at the time: ‘Whenever the question has been asked, GPs and the BMA and the RCGP have consistently opposed any change in the law.

GP stance

'Our concern is to protect the most vulnerable in society and while individual cases can often be quite heart rending, we need to ensure that all people – and particularly the voiceless – are protected, and current law allows that to take place.

‘Improving palliative care has to be the focus. I'm quite sure people on all sides of the debate – and I've no doubt it will continue – want to see care for patients in a palliative situation be as good as it can be.’

In 2014, the RCGP polled members to evaluate whether it should change its stance on assisted dying, but found that a majority of its members remained opposed to legalisation. Of RCGP members who submitted personal responses to a consultation, 77% said the college should remain opposed to assisted dying. In 20 out of 28 RCGP organisations that responded, majority support for opposition to assisted dying was confirmed.

RCGP chairwoman Dr Maureen Baker said at the time: 'This was one of the most comprehensive consultations the college has ever undertaken and the quality of the responses on this extremely important issue has been very high. GPs will continue, as they have always done, to provide excellent care to patients in the final days and hours of their lives.'

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