Is lack of palliative care in Canada driving people to euthanasia?

When Canada introduced euthanasia and assisted suicide into its laws, debate occurred about whether patients were seeking to prematurely end their lives because they did not have access to appropriate palliative care.

These fears seem to have been borne out, with a recent report on access to palliative care in Canada from the Canadian Institute for Health Information finding that only 15 per cent of Canadians received palliative care in their home during the last year of their life.

Other shocking findings from the report include:

  • While many Canadian jurisdictions name at-home (or community) palliative care as a priority, few patients actually receive it. “In provinces where this could be measured (Ontario and Alberta),” the report states, “fewer than 1 in 6 people (15%) who died in 2016–2017 received publicly funded palliative home care.”
  • Most people who accessed palliative care in 2016 only did so during their last month of life, even though early access to palliative care results in fewer visits to emergency departments and less aggressive treatment at the end of life.
  • Access to palliative care can depend on your illness and your age. The report found that patients who did not have cancer were three times less likely to receive palliative care, and both younger adults and those aged 75 years and older had less access to palliative care services.
  • Just 1 per cent of doctors and 2 per cent of nurses specialise in palliative care. There is limited data available about palliative care practice, but according to available data from Alberta, only 1 per cent of doctors practised primarily in palliative care in 2012–2013, and only 2 per cent of nurses across Canada in 2016 worked primarily in palliative care.

Vulnerable people suffer unnecessarily when jurisdictions pay no more than lip service to the “priority” of palliative care, and are often driven to euthanasia and assisted suicide because of the lack of other available choices.

Before any government – including any Australian government – legalises euthanasia and assisted suicide, it should invest into giving people the choice of publicly funded palliative care at the end of life.

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