A New Zealand health practitioner is under investigation for allegedly raising assisted dying with a suicidal patient.
The Health and Disability Commissioner is investigating the case, which was revealed in a Ministry of Health report published today.
The report said a complainant had raised concerns about “a health practitioner initiating a conversation about assisted dying with a suicidal young person”.
Under New Zealand’s assisted dying law, a doctor or other health professional cannot initiate discussion about assisted dying. It must be initiated by the patient.
While the patient’s condition is not detailed in the report, the law also explicitly states that a person cannot be eligible for euthanasia on the basis of mental illness alone. There is also a minimum age of 18 years old.
The commissioner was preparing a provisional decision. No further details were available.
It was one of eight complaints made to the Health and Disability Commission about the Assisted Dying Service in the last year.
So far, no one involved in the service had broken the law.
The complaints were listed in the Assisted Dying Registrar’s annual report, published today – the first time a full year of the service has been captured.
Despite the complaints, the report portrayed a service which was working well.
The registrar, Kristin Good, said public feedback on the service had been “predominantly positive”.
Good said the assisted dying regime was continuing to mature, and described it as a “success” and a “safe and trusted” service.
Statistics in the report show the number of people having an assisted death in New Zealand has risen to nearly one a day.
While that is an increase on the previous year, it is still fraction of total deaths and in line with projections made by officials.
Between April 2022 and March this year, 807 people applied for an assisted death. Of that total, 328 were approved and went ahead with the lethal procedure.
Another 111 people were still being assessed, and 45 more people were in the process of applying. The remainder of applicants did not have an assisted death – because they were found ineligible or could not give consent, had withdrawn their application, or had died of their underlying conditions.
In last year’s report, between four and five people a week were dying as a result of assisted suicide. The rate is now more than six a week, and roughly 1 per cent of all deaths in New Zealand.
That is in line with expectations. The Ministry of Health has previously noted that in jurisdictions with similar assisted dying laws the rate was between 0.3 per cent and 2 per cent.
The ministry reported that patients were personalising their experience and incorporating cultural practices such as karakia or prayer. Some had chosen to play music as they went through the procedure, while others had family, friends or pets with them when they died.
The data showed that the vast majority of applicants were European New Zealand/Pakeha, were over 75 years old, and were receiving palliative care when they applied.
Nearly 70 per cent of applicants had a cancer diagnosis, while around 10 per cent had a neurological condition.
The rejection rate for assisted dying is relatively high in New Zealand, which has led to calls from advocates and some doctors for loosening the criteria. The legislation will be reviewed next year.
The registrar’s report showed the most common reason for being rejected for an assisted death was the patient not suffering from a terminal illness that was likely to end their life within six months.
A paper in the New Zealand Medical Journal published last week reported that two applicants who had been found ineligible for assisted dying had attempted suicide.
Both patients were in their 90s and had failed to meet the six-month prognosis criteria. The authors of the paper said a suicide risk assessment should be included in the assisted dying assessment.
The End of Life Choice Act came into force in November 2021, after New Zealanders overwhelmingly backed the law change in a binding public referendum in 2020.