WHAT DOCTORS CAN DO
Although doctors are not allowed to hasten someone’s death by actively assisting them to die, they are allowed to help someone die by withdrawing life-sustaining treatment.
Outside of this, doctors are also allowed to ease someone’s suffering by providing pain relief (even if that means speeding up a person’s death) or, for people in extreme pain, induce sleep until they naturally die.
Patients are allowed to request these treatments, but cannot compel a doctor to provide them.
PALLIATIVE CARE AND PAIN RELIEF
Palliative medicine is a form of healthcare that is designed to make people as comfortable as possible by managing the symptoms of their illness. Typically, this means providing pain relief, such as morphine, to alleviate any physical distress or control pain. However, good palliative care should also be able to help someone cope with fatigue and breathlessness, as well as emotional, spiritual, and psychological support.
Anyone suffering from a degenerative, life-limiting, or incurable condition can receive palliative care at any stage in their illness. It can also be provided alongside other treatments e.g. chemotherapy. For those nearing the end of their life, greater levels of care can also be provided to help make sure someone’s remaining time is as comfortable as possible.
At least a quarter of a million people benefit from high-quality palliative care each year in the UK, either through a hospice, hospital specialist, or home nurse.
For the vast majority of people, traditional palliative care methods are able to provide comfort and relief during the final stages of an illness. However, in the rare circumstances where this isn’t the case, doctors can also help those in extreme pain by inducing sleep or unconsciousness until death occurs naturally.
Palliative sedation (sometimes called continuous and deep sedation, or terminal sedation) can be provided temporarily to reduce someone’s consciousness or entirely induce sleep. It is estimated that 18.7% of people in the last hours or days of life receive palliative sedation. However, it can also be provided before someone’s final stages of life, and normally this means that someone will be induced to sleep while they are also refusing food and water