GMC guidance on facilitation of patient suicide complaints

New guidance on how the GMC deals with complaints against doctors who may have helped patients commit suicide has been published.

The guidance will help the GMC decide if a doctor should face a fitness to practise hearing if they are alleged to have helped a person to die. It follows a three-month long public consultation.

It is illegal to assist or encourage a person to commit suicide or attempt to end their life in all four UK countries. The guidance for GMC decision makers’ sets out some of the things doctors may have done in order to encourage or assist a suicide.

It also makes clear the factors that need to be considered in deciding whether a doctor should be disciplined. These include:

– If the doctor knew or should have reasonably known that their actions would encourage or assist suicide

– If a doctor had prescribed medication that was not clinically indicated or other practical assistance or information or advice about methods of committing suicide

– The context and nature of support or information sought

– The intensity of encouragement or assistance

The GMC has also published advice for doctors on how to handle situations where a patient seeks advice about ending their lives.

The advice says: ‘Where patients raise the issue of assisted suicide, or ask for information that might encourage or assist them in ending their lives, doctors should explain that they cannot do so because providing this information would mean breaking the criminal law.’

It combines key principles from existing guidance Good Medical Practice and Treatment and care towards the end of life and will help doctors who are faced with these difficult and emotionally challenging situations.

The number of cases involving allegations relating to assisted suicide is very small. In the last 10 years there have been three cases, one resulting from a conviction for assisting suicide in British Columbia. None of these cases were from a conviction for assisting suicide in the UK.

Niall Dickson, GMC chief executive, said: “Encouraging or assisting suicide is a criminal offence and our new guidance reflects the law.

“It will help us to make fair and consistent decisions when investigating an allegation that a doctor has helped a person end their life. Patients may also find our guidance helpful in understanding how we consider complaints in this sensitive and complex area.”

Read the new guidance for investigating assisted suicide complaints.

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