GMC revamps guidance on assisted suicide

GPs can legally respect a competent patient's right to refuse treatment but must limit advice about assisted suicide to an explanation that it is a criminal offence, the GMC has said.

End of life: GMC updates guidance on assisted suicide (photo: Paul Starr)
End of life: GMC updates guidance on assisted suicide (photo: Paul Starr)

The GMC issued an explanatory note on assisted suicide after doctors requested clarification on how to respond to patients who asked for advice or help to do with ending their lives.

The GMC said doctors had struggled in the past because they did not want patients to feel abandoned, but feared discussions around suicide could be against the law.

In the GMC guidance, the regulator makes clear that doctors must respect patients’ right to make decisions about their care, including their right to refuse treatment even if this will lead to death.

However, it added that a patients' right to choose how their care was managed would not justify a doctor giving advice or guidance on suicide, which would be illegal.

Where doctors are uncertain about how a particular action might be viewed, the GMC advised them to seek legal advice from their medical defence organisation.

The guidance also made clear that doctors are not required to provide treatments that they consider will not be of overall benefit to the patient, or which will harm the patient.

Dr Sally Old, MDU medico-legal adviser said: ‘It is rare for a patient to tell their doctor that they are considering an assisted suicide. We open about five files a year to advise members about this issue. Many enquiries come from GPs who are concerned that they could be seen to be aiding in an assisted suicide in some way and want to know what their position is.

‘Such cases are usually complex and we would advise any GPs with concerns about assisted suicide to contact us for individual advice.’

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