Ontario Today: Should doctors be forced to refer?

CBC Radio

Outline of the programme

00:00 Introduction

03:00  Dr. Sephora Tang, psychiatrist (objecting physician).  Discussion points include potential problem of access to euthanasia/assisted suicide faced by frail and isolated patients, those in rural areas or  “negative elements” in families, central referral service alternative, issue of complicity, physician-patient relationship.

12:16  Caller Dr. Terry, primary care (objecting physician). Discussion points include erosion of medical ethics, erosion of trust in physician-patient relationship, relationship between law and ethics, distinction in skill sets needed for euthanasia/assisted suicide vs. abortion.

19:25  Interviewer outlines points in position of the Canadian Medical Association

20:19  Caller Vivi. Favours compulsory referral because access to euthanasia/assisted suicide should be considered from patient perspective, not doctor’s.

22:32  Dr. Sephora Tang responds to points made by caller.

24:14  Interviewer outlines policy on effective referral of College of Physicians & Surgeons of Ontario [There are two relevant documents: POHR and MAID; Administrator]

24:34  Caller Dr. Ramona Coelho (objecting physician). Explains why she will not make effective referral.

25:42  Caller Dr. David Roussell, President, College of Physicians & Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO).  Interviewer puts to him opposition to effective referral by the Canadian Medical Association, more liberal policies in other provinces.  Dr. Roussell discusses College policy requiring effective referral.  Asserts that the College is primarily concerned with access to euthanasia/assisted suicide etc. by patients who might have difficulty doing do if their physician does not assist.  Notes that both Nova Scotia and Quebec have similar requirements, so Ontario is not alone.  Notes that referral does not always result in procedure being obtained.  Characterizes objections to effective referral as oversensitive.  Acknowledges that loss of licence to practice is one possible outcome of complaint against a physician for refusing to refer.

35:12  Caller Dr. Christine (objecting physician).  Emphasizes central care coordinating system and self-referral by patients would be more efficient and avoid conflicts of conscience.

37:20  Caller Dr. Roussell agrees that central coordination system and self-referral is promising, but asserts that this can “fall apart” in some cases.

38:25 Caller David.  Opposed to compulsory referral.  Believes it is safer to ensure diversity of views in society, especially in life and death matters, by protecting freedom of conscience.

41:30  Interviewer asks Dr. Roussell to respond to concerns about freedom of conscience.

42:00  Caller Dr. Roussell notes “private beliefs, religious or otherwise, are not the purview, shouldn’t be the purview of the College or the government . . . What we’re talking about here is from the public’s point of view. There’s a legally available service to, in most people’s minds, alleviate suffering, which is what medicine is supposed to be about.  And the battle’s been fought, the war’s been won, the law has been passed.  Why are we throwing up obstacles to a legally accessible service?  Especially throwing up obstacles at the last moment to people who are in some sense suffering.”

43:04 Caller Joel (medical student).  Supports compulsory referral.  “Doctors in Canada should not be practising medicine in Canada if they feel that their moral code supersedes what is law.”  He adds, “It is great for doctors to unite and object on some things” and refers to the Alberta system (which has proved acceptable to objecting physicians).  He believes that effective referral for euthanasia or assisted suicide does not make a physician a “conduit of death,” but means that the patient can access a specialist with appropriate training.  He characterizes acceptance of conscientious objection as a “slippery slope.”

44:45  Caller Erica.  Supports compulsory referral.  Her mother (whom she identified as a Christian) was suffering from multiple sclerosis.  She was joyful when euthanasia was legalized [Criminal Code amendments given Royal Assent in June, 2016; Administrator].  She was not euthanized/assisted with suicide until the end of December, 2016 because her physician (whom Erica also identified as a Christian) refused, and refused to refer her. Erica stated that this “absolutely shattered her.  It took her days to pick herself up and decide she was going to keep trying to find somebody.” Asserts that denying such people access to a medical procedure is unfair.

46:31  Interviewer notes that less than 75 physicians in Ontario are actually providing euthanasia/assisted suicide. Erica explains that a doctor was found after a CBC interview made her situation public.

47:28  Dr. Sephora Tang responds.  Notes that patients want access, and she does not wish to impede.  The system set up by the government made it impossible for patients to access euthanasia/assisted suicide on their own. If society wants people to have access, there are alternative ways to ensure access that should be considered.

48:07  Interviewer asks about patients being fearful of the “judgement” of their physicians.

48:27  Dr. Sephora Tang emphasizes importance of trust in physician-patient relationship.   It is better for the patient to know where she stands on some issues, so there “no guessing around that.”  It is possible to agree to disagree.

49:16  Dr. Chantal (euthanasia/assisted suicide provider).  Supports compulsory referral, because “patients need access.”  Abortion clinics are not an appropriate comparison.  Referral must include all relevant medical information.  “No medical information is necessary for a physician to do an abortion,” but is needed prior to performing euthanasia/assisted suicide.  To expect patients to go to hospitals and doctors to gather all of the relevant medical information is “completely unreasonable.”  Patients would be “significantly compromised” if objecting physicians refused to provide the relevant information.

Postscript from Dr. Christine (Reproduced with permission)

Just because a physician may conscientiously object to formal participation by the administrative/legal/ethical agreement implied by a documentation-based referral (re: linking billing numbers between 2 practitioners for review +/- enactment of a desired procedure),this does NOT mean that an objecting physician would ever dare to obstruct the subsequently requested movement of health file information (which is first and foremost a property that emanates from the patient!) to the clinician to whom the patient wishes to receive lethal injections from. 

Furthermore:  If a patient seeks a care pathway that may end in MAiD, through a care coordination service in the ideal case, then there are administrative health professionals in all the offices who can and do link with each other to physically get the records moving. 

(Again, a physician is not the one pulling the files in a Norman Rockwell/1950’s-style office; we now have digital spigots to move information, and physicians are not required to unlock the content in our current collaborative environment of ConnectingOntario/PRO/OLIS).

 My original point in the call is that forcing a physician to fill out referrals (and limiting the power/responsibility to do this, to physicians) is ironically creating (rather than removing) a barrier to care. 

 (Incidentally – and not all people know this – it is also quite typical and not an exception for most referrals to come with inadequate background case information, even in non-controversial indications; doctors know how to probe for what’s missing [and often have to ask for information in several iterations and from multiple parties], and gaps from healthcare fragmentation are not so much a product of malfeasance as simply laziness…)

 

One thought on “Ontario Today: Should doctors be forced to refer?

  1. Several points raised during the programme are of interest.
    1) According to the interviewer, one year after formal legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide, it appears that less than 75 physicians in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, are willing to actually provide the procedures.

    2) The caller Vivi, while stating that she favours compulsory referral, appears to concede that central referral service favoured by objecting physicians would be acceptable, but the interviewer appears not to have noticed this. It would seem that this is indicative of the possibility of a satisfactory compromise.

    3) The CPSO representative essentially argued that “private beliefs” must yield to public expectations and the law, even at the expense of freedom of conscience. Medical student Joel made the same argument.

    4) The statement by Dr. Chantal that no medical information is required prior to providing an abortion is consistent with the view of an undetermined number of objecting physicians that abortion (at least as commonly provided) is not a medical procedure. Note that Dr. Terry, in contrast, asserts that only physicians are likely to have the technical skills required by abortion providers.

    5) Medical student Joel agrees that physicians should be able to “unite and object on some things,” but does not explain what “some things” might include. It would appear from his position that “some things” cannot include anything that is legal (which means anything that has not been prohibited by law).

    6) As Dr. Christine points out in the postscript, patient information is the property of the patient and would be routinely transmitted upon the request of the patient or physician acting on the patient’s behalf. This routine transfer of records upon request is the only requirement in jurisdictions outside Canada where euthanasia is legal.

Leave a Reply