504 people on Vancouver Island have had medical assistance in dying since it became legal two years ago. (Pixabay photo)

Vancouver Island leads nation in medically assisted deaths

Island residents choose assisted death five times more than other Canadians

In the two years since medically assisted death became legal in Canada, Vancouver Island’s residents have chosen assisted death nearly five times more than other Canadians — and demand is not being met.

Since June 17, 2016, there have been 504 medically assisted deaths on the Island. Island Health considers medically assisted in dying (MAID) as a patient-centred service and “the procedure itself is not complicated and can be carried out in almost any setting,” according to a recent report.

Dr. David Robertson is the executive medical director for MAID for Island Health, and co-authored the report. He said when assisted death became a legal right for Canadians who meet the criteria, there were five people on Vancouver Island trained to help carry them out.

“That left huge areas of the Island with no one who would be a provider. That has changed gradually over the course of the last two and a half years now.”

Now there are more than 40, and most communities have one but Robertson said there are still concerns about access if a physician needs to travel to the patient or goes on vacation. Access is steadily improving, however, with more than one out of every three Island family physicians providing patient assessments for MAID, a number Robertson called substantial.

The MAID deaths in the last two years have made up 3.6 per cent of all expected deaths on the Island. In the past six months, that percentage has increased to 4.1. It took 15 years for the Netherlands’ similar MAID program to reach this rate, and the rest of Canada has a rate of less than one per cent.

READ MORE: Top court asked to hear B.C. appeal seeking faster trial on assisted dying

“Reasons for this are a combination of high demand, availability of a few dedicated prescribers, and also probably demographic and social factors. BC has a long history of legal and social activism in favour of assisted dying, and the level of awareness of MAID is very high across the province,” the report said.

Robertson said there was no research done about the reasons Islanders are choosing assisted deaths, such as cultural or religious reasons. What they do know is the average age of people opting for MAID is 76 years old, and men and women have equally chosen the option.

The rate of choosing MAID, the report said, continues to rise. Although there are 39 physicians in Island Health trained to provide medically assisted deaths, only 19 have provided the service. The report concludes that further studies need to explore the barriers of providing MAID.

On Nov. 1, the federal government is introducing regulations for gathering data about MAID, which will give Island Health access to more records. Right now, they have information about the 504 people who have had MAID, but none about the people who have begun the MAID process by filling out a request form but have not ended up having a medically assisted death.

“The federal regulations will improve that immensely once they come in and start gathering data on Nov. 1. That will give us much more reliable numbers,” Robertson said.

READ MORE: A personal look at assisted dying


@KeiliBartlett
keili.bartlett@blackpress.ca

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