Video: Why doctors who support assisted dying don't provide it

It’s been six months since Bill C-14 became the law of the land, and many of our nation’s doctors continue to have their hands tied because of unclear eligibility criteria, the fear of institutional punishment, and a patchwork doctor referral network.

Recently, Dr. James Downar — a palliative care physician and teacher at the University Health Network in Toronto, and a long-time member of Dying With Dignity Canada’s Physicians Advisory Council — gave a stirring and illuminating talk about the gaps in the healthcare system that deter willing physicians from providing medical assistance in dying (MAID). In one stunning anecdote, Dr. Downar talks about receiving a referral for assisted death from a colleague who had already acted as a provider. Take a look at the two-minute YouTube clip below, so you can hear him tell it in his own words.

Why are physicians who support assisted dying staying on the sidelines? Some are barred by their institutions from even talking about assisted dying with their desperately ill patients. Others struggle to find colleagues nearby who are willing providers. Many still can’t wrap their heads around the law’s sufficiently vague requirement that a patient’s death be “reasonably foreseeable”— a term that Dr. Downar says holds very little meaning for physicians. “When physicians don’t have clarity, they don’t tend to walk forward,” he said earlier in his talk. “We’re very risk averse.”

When doctors are brave enough to walk forward, they may be prevented from doing so by their employers. In these instances, doctors face a gut-wrenching dilemma: obey their healthcare institutions’ policies or respect patients’ rights and wishes. Many ultimately choose not to provide assisted dying out of fear of getting fired.

“It’s not clear that any of these institutions ever have to answer to anybody for what they do,” Dr. Downar says. “These are institutions that are accepting public funds, but not public ethics. That’s a problem.”

How you can help

Instead of feeling disheartened and discouraged by these reports, Dying With Dignity Canada is feeling determined. We see this as an opportunity to roll up our sleeves and get to work. It is more evident than ever that we have so much to do to Shine a Light on unfair barriers preventing suffering Canadians from exercising their right to an assisted death.

From Dr. Downar’s talk, we can see that these barriers exist on every possible level — from each individual doctor to our brick-and-mortar institutions — all the way up to the top brass in government. With a small staff and a meagre budget, DWDC cannot begin to tackle these barriers without your help.

Your donation today will enable and empower us to expose these gaps in the system and dismantle these barriers to access. As we move into 2017, we are as committed as ever to ensuring that your voices and your fight for compassion and choice are reflected in the healthcare system.