British Columbia

Health authorities, B.C. Coroners Service to evaluate doctor-assisted deaths

The B.C. Coroners Service is set to conduct the first review of the province's doctor-assisted dying program later this month.

188 doctor-assisted deaths were reported over a 7-month period

B.C. health authorities will meet with the B.C. Coroners Service later this month to evaluate the province's medically-assisted death program. (University of Calgary)

The B.C. Coroners Service is set to conduct the first review of the province's doctor-assisted dying program later this month.

Between June 17, 2016 — when Bill C-14 was enacted — and Jan. 10, 2017, 188 doctor-assisted deaths were reported. An updated number is expected to be released in the coming days.

A spokesperson said all of the health authorities will gather later this month along with the Coroner to evaluate how the program.

"This is still in the early stages. As people take a look at their options in terms of dying, I expect there will be more people who will choose this," said Dr. Harsh Hundal of Interior Health. 

'These are emotional conversations'

23 of the 188 doctor-assisted deaths took place within the Interior Health region

77 deaths were reported within Island Health, 58 in Vancouver Coastal Health, 24 in Fraser Health and six deaths were reported within the Northern Health authority.

"They're tricky conversations. It's not like if you go in and want to know if you're eligible for a flu shot or not," said Hundal.

"These are emotional conversations."

There is a mandatory 10-day reflection period for patients who make a formal request for a doctor-assisted death. 

Hundal said looking at data from Oregon — where medically assisted dying has been legal since 1997— roughly one third of people typically change their minds and decide they don't wish to proceed. 

He estimates that number to be closer to 20 per cent within Interior Health. 

Hundal said doctors who have performed medically-assisted deaths describe it as 'a very profound experience.' (Radio Canada)

"For some people, having this choice available makes it easier to cope with what they're going through."

"That's one of the things we've found really interesting. The anxiety about death that some people have, once they're in the process, really gets diminished."

Doctors describe it as 'profound experience'

Hundal said a few doctors within Interior Health have chosen not to perform the procedure, but instead referred the patient to another physician.

He said doctors describe the assisted dying procedure as "a very profound experience."

Island Health — the authority with the highest number of doctor-assisted deaths — attributes the higher rate to an older population and greater acceptance of the concept.

"We didn't know that it would happen, this rapid rise," said Dr. David Robertson, the executive lead on medical aid in dying for Island Health.

He said B.C. is leading the way in implementing medically assisted dying and gathering data.

"We're probably doing better than other provinces."