A group that claims to represent 1000 healthcare professionals opposed to voluntary assisted dying has stoked doctor anger, with several saying their names were added to the list without their consent.
Health Professionals Say No! – a vocal anti-voluntary assisted dying (VAD) lobby group – has been accused of overstating its support, with doctors claiming their names had been added without their consent.
The group, which purports to represent 1000 health professionals, says its members are opposed to VAD. Most recently it lobbied against any move to allow the use of telehealth in VAD discussions in a full-page ad and open letter in The Weekend Australian.
However, a number of health professionals listed on the group's website said they had not given permission for their names to be used. Many had never heard of the group.
More extraordinary – some of those listed said they were actually in strong support of VAD and the use of telehealth in VAD discussions. Several were active VAD providers.
Dr Margherita Nicoletti, a Palliative Medicine Specialist and VAD practitioner from Western Australia, said she was "outraged" by the inclusion of her name.
“I was at first gobsmacked, then outraged by the use of my ‘signature’ by a group of people I had never heard of to support a cause with which I am diametrically opposed," Dr Nicolettit said.
“I am both a Palliative Care Specialist and VAD provider. Videoconferencing is an essential element of providing an equitable service in our vast state of WA and I am hopeful that legislation will change to allow more detailed discussions when videoconferencing is being used.”
Dr Sarah Pickstock, palliative medicine specialist and VAD practitioner, said she had not heard of the group until recently and believed her name was added without her permission.
“I fully and proudly support the VAD process in WA," Dr Pickstock said. "I believe telehealth usage is essential, especially for rural and remote patients to have timely access.”
Another palliative care specialist, who asked not to be identified, said: “I have never signed up to this group and definitively have not been consulted about this open letter. As a rurally based practitioner, I believe telehealth is an important aspect of care for patients living in regional and remote areas and without it equitable care cannot be provided.”
Queensland Nurse Practitioner, Faye Tomlin, described the use of her name as “highly improper”.
“I wish it to be known that I have never been a contributor to any petitions for the said organisation that supports this view,” she said.
Go Gentle Australia CEO Dr Linda Swan said it was very concerning if health professionals' names were added to the list without consent.
"Health professionals, especially those in decision making positions, take a very dim view of inaccurate and misleading data. We will be following up and urging this group to immediately remove those names and any other names that appear without permission."
Top law officers meet to discuss amendments to Criminal Code
The backlash came as state and federal Attorneys General met in Darwin to discuss amending the Criminal Code Act to remove the ambiguity around telehealth discussions in VAD practice.
Two short sections in the Code – sections 474.29A and 474.29B – prohibit the use of a carriage service to discuss or send ‘suicide related’ materials. Even though many state laws make clear that VAD is not suicide, these sections mean that doctors are reluctant to use telehealth to discuss some aspects of VAD with their patients for fear of prosecution and a $220,000 fine.
Widespread doctor support for telehealth and VAD
Despite anti-VAD groups' claims, there is strong support among health professionals for VAD, which is now legal in all six Australian states.
The AMA NSW, the peak body representing NSW doctors, joined national calls for an immediate change to the Criminal Code Act (Cth) to allow electronic discussion of VAD.
"Telehealth is an accepted part of healthcare delivery, particularly after the pandemic that saw a rise in telehealth uptake," Dr Michael Bonning, AMA NSW President said in a statement. "The decision regarding whether telehealth is an appropriate form of consultation is a matter for the treating doctor and patient to discuss.
"The AMA NSW calls upon the meeting of Attorneys General scheduled for Friday 28 April to agree to amend the Criminal Code Act."
The Doctors Reform Society echoed the call: "It is vital that telehealth be made available for terminally ill rural and regional Australians so they are able to access Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) without being forced to travel for hours or being denied VAD due to the lack of rural doctors,” spokesperson Dr Robert Marr OAM GP said.
Go Gentle's Dr Swan said it appeared the Attorneys-General had failed to reach a decision on Telehealth and VAD at their most recent meeting, but she was hopeful amendments to the Criminal Code would be agreed to at the next meeting in June.
"It's time the Criminal Code was changed to recognise that VAD is not suicide. Healthcare professionals acting in good faith should have the protection of the law and not face criminal prosecution for providing their patients with what is a legal and compassionate end-of-life choice."