Alberta regulator wants feedback on how to handle physician-assisted dying

EDMONTON — The organization that regulates Alberta doctors says it is taking a “conservative” approach to the issue of physician-assisted death.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons has released what it calls a “draft advice document” that focuses on issues such as consent and on the right of doctors who for religious or moral reasons don’t want to help a patient to end their life.

The document follows a Supreme Court ruling last February that struck down the federal law against physician-assisted dying for competent adult patients enduring intolerable suffering.

“Physicians should err on the side of caution during this time of legislative uncertainty,” reads one of the guiding principles in the college’s advice document.

“Physicians’ right to freedom of conscience should be respected,” reads another.

Other guidelines include that doctors have an obligation not to abandon their patients or obstruct access to legally permissible health services.

Dr. Trevor Theman, the college’s registrar, said it wants feedback from medical professionals and the public before it updates the policy in December.

He said it is important to tread carefully.

“We think that physicians should be conservative in terms of offering the service and in their discussions with patients,” Theman said Wednesday.

“One of the risks, to be quite blunt about this, to the medical profession, is that we lose the public trust or the public trust is damaged if physicians are not very careful how they take on this new authority, this new duty.”

Theman gave two examples of Alberta’s approach in interpreting the Supreme Court ruling.

The college said the high court did not define what it means by a “competent adult.” The college said it is defining competent adult as someone who can legally give consent, which excludes anyone under the age of 18, including mature minors.  

Theman also said advanced directives, in which a family member or agent could request a doctor’s help with dying for someone who is not competent to speak for themselves, would be excluded in Alberta.     

Alberta’s advice document comes as physician regulators and medical groups across Canada grapple with how to deal with physician-assisted dying.

Earlier this month, Quebec’s physician regulator announced it is developing a guide for practitioners that is to include what drugs to use for patients who seek help to end their lives.

Last year, Quebec became the first jurisdiction in Canada to legalize medical aid in dying for mentally competent patients who meet a strict set of criteria.

The Canadian Medical Association released its own set of draft principles in May and has been receiving feedback.

Dr. Jeff Blackmer, an association vice-president, said the challenges include how to ensure patient access while respecting the rights of physicians who don’t want to participate.

“We have heard certainly that there is a lot of angst within the medical community,” he said.

Blackmer said the association plans to firm up its document next month and present it to the federal government after the Oct. 19 election.

The Supreme Court suspended its ruling for one year to give Ottawa time to craft and pass new legislation.

Blackmer said the association is worried about the possibility of provinces coming up with a patchwork of different guidelines.

“That is a huge concern for us,” he said. “You really don’t want to see an inconsistent approach across the different provinces.”

John Cotter, The Canadian Press

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