Hundreds of doctors have signed up to become authorised voluntary assisted dying (VAD) practitioners, ahead of its introduction in New South Wales next week.

The state is the last in Australia to pass laws allowing people with a terminal illness to voluntarily choose to end their life. The legislation, which the NSW Parliament passed last year comes into effect on November 28, following a year-long process to implement safety controls and procedures.  

Go Gentle Australia, a registered charity and campaigner for VAD, told Central News there had been an influx in the past two weeks and figures provided by the Department of Health showed 350 medical practitioners had so far completed training or registered for it.

“As of this week, 100 practitioners have finished voluntary assisted dying training, 50 more will finish by the commencement date next week, and 200 more have begun the training process,” a spokesman said.

“We feel very positive about these numbers for NSW. They exceed the numbers of doctors trained in other states at the time of implementation, which bodes extremely well for access in NSW.”

The increased interest in implementing NSW’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Act 2022 has been attributed, by some, to the groundwork already laid in other states legislation.

Shayne Higson, the chief executive and spokesperson for Dying with Dignity NSW, said: “NSW has the advantage of being the last state to implement VAD, which means the legislation was able to be refined during the debate and there are certainly improvements on the original Victorian model.

“An encouraging example is NSW Health employing VMOs (Visiting Medical Officers) to fly to regional and remote areas so that people are not disadvantaged if their local doctor doesn’t qualify or chooses to conscientiously object.”

However, there were still ways the legislation could be improved, including where a doctor had to give a six-month prognosis to live.

“Medical prognosis, predicting the end of one’s life, can be imprecise, and a doctor overestimating someone’s time to live may result in them dying before they can access voluntary assisted dying,” Higson said, adding that she hopes reforms would see the prognosis limit raised to 12 months for all cases. Currently, 12 months is only the limit for neurodegenerative diseases.

“For example, my own mother was given a prognosis of less than 12 months when first diagnosed with aggressive terminal brain cancer but she only lived for seven months.

“Had VAD been a legal option when she was dying, by the time she reached the ‘less than six months’ point she would have been too unwell to get through the long assessment process.

I think for many practitioners it matches their personal ideals, but the common element is practitioners with a personal link to voluntary assisted dying.

“With just one time frame for all diseases, dying individuals could complete the VAD application process earlier and then concentrate on enjoying what time they have left without the anxiety and fear.”

Pain specialist Dr Gavin Pattullo, a consultant anaesthesiologist at Sydney Anaesthetic Services, is one of the 100 practitioners who has completed the training, and spoke highly of the legislation.

“I think we can be really, really proud of the document our legislators have produced,” he said. “It’s ironclad, it’s safe. We should be proud as a country that we can handle such a complicated issue.”

He put the high uptake of practitioners partly down to personal ideals.

“I think for many practitioners it matches their personal ideals, but the common element is practitioners with a personal link to voluntary assisted dying,” he added.

Dr Pattullo said his wife, who was diagnosed with a terminal illness, was forced to end her life alone due to a lack of VAD options. The experience, he added, drove him to become an authorised VAD practitioner, to help others in the same situation.

“I don’t want anyone to be Venessa in that situation, I don’t want anyone to be me in that situation,” he said.

“It’s important, psychologically. Families who experience a VAD death fare far better psychologically than those who witness a potentially traumatic in-hospital death.”

Higson said it had been a difficult process taking calls from terminally ill patients over the long implementation period.

“There have been incidents of people hearing the law had passed, and since then passing away,” she said. “I’ve had to interact with people in that situation, and it was quite difficult at the start of the implementation process to tell people that they would likely not be around for the laws’ implementation.

“Thankfully that has changed now that we are closer to the implementation date, and I’ve been able to finally give people the good news.” 

VAD in NSW is available from this Tuesday, November 28. 

Main image by Sandra Manning/Flickr.