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New push to remove VAD telehealth restrictions

Go Gentle Australia has welcomed a private member's bill that seeks to allow the use of Telehealth in voluntary assisted dying.

Independent MP Kate Chaney introduced the bill in the House of Representatives, saying her bill sought to exclude VAD services from a section of the Criminal Code that prohibits the use of a carriage service to ‘encourage or incite’ suicide.

Currently, health professionals who use electronic communications in any part of the VAD process risk criminal prosecution and a $300,000 fine.

Ms Chaney said the current prohibition unfairly discriminated against dying people who were too sick to travel or who lived in regional and remote areas.

“Decades ago, this section was inserted [in the Criminal Code] to prevent a person from causing another to take their own life. As an unintended and unfortunate consequence, it is now preventing eligible patients from accessing legal end-of-life options,” Ms Chaney said.

Dr Linda Swan, Go Gentle Australia’s CEO, welcomed the bill.

“We should not be forcing terminally ill people to travel long distances to appointments when an alternative exists in the form of Telehealth.

“Anyone who has cared for a dying person knows that even basic tasks can be a struggle. Why would we knowingly add to their pain and suffering?

“The ban on Telehealth is not a safeguard, it is an impediment to high-quality care. We urge parliament to rectify this discriminatory and outdated prohibition."

Health professionals back reform

Dr Cam McLaren, president of VADANZ, the peak body representing VAD practitioners in Australia and NZ, thanked Ms Chaney for tabling the bill: “Telehealth assessments for VAD eligibility continue to be conducted in New Zealand, and other jurisdictions around the world with no evidence to suggest that this jeopardises patient safety. Every Voluntary Assisted Dying Review Board in the country has recommended allowing Telehealth assessments for VAD eligibility. Legislators should listen to these experts whose primary purpose is to ensure the safe operation of VAD legislation.”

Tom Simpson, The Society of Hospital Pharmacists of Australia President, said: “As a VAD-credentialled pharmacist myself, I know first-hand the challenges faced not just by patients, but by practitioners who want certainty that they are practicing within the law.  If a doctor phones a pharmacist for advice on administering a VAD medication, the answer currently is ‘I can’t tell you that over the phone’ – an answer that puts the focus on not breaching the Code, rather than recognising that there’s a doctor and a patient at the other end of the line."

In December 2023, Dr Steve Robson, the federal president of the Australian Medical Association, wrote to federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus seeking to clarify the situation and to ask Mr Dreyfus to ensure doctors who legally participated in VAD were not liable to criminal prosecution. 

Hear Kate Chaney MP and VAD practitioner Gareth Wahl discuss the private member's bill on ABC Radio Perth (from 23 mins).

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