Getting the truth from your doctor

recordsNeed to get to Dignitas for assisted suicide? You’ll need to provide some medical records.

Up till now, this has worried some doctors. Under the Guidelines from the Director of Public Prosecutions, it could perhaps be interpreted as encouraging a suicide. But this week the General Medical Council has said that providing copies of a person’s medical records is “too distant from the encouragement or assistance to raise a question about a doctor’s fitness to practise.”

This is a step forward.

There has been concern in the past that a GP might not be willing to provide a copy of a patient’s medical records. Dignitas do require a medical report sufficient to verify the patient’s condition. Some doctors have been afraid that to do so might be construed as assisting a suicide under UK law. The General Medical Council (GMC) is the body that can decide on a doctor’s fitness to practice and anything that might be seen as assisting or encouraging a suicide might be grounds for preventing that doctor from practicing in the future. On 31st January 2013, the GMC finally issued guidance on this point as follows:

Some actions related to a person’s decision to, or ability to, commit suicide are lawful, or will be too distant from the encouragement or assistance to raise a question about a doctor’s fitness to practise. These includes (sic) but is not limited to:                                                                                          

a) providing advice or information limited to the doctor’s understanding of the law relating to encouraging or assisting suicide

b) providing access to a patient’s records where a subject access request has been made in accordance with the terms of the Data Protection Act 1998

c) providing information or evidence in the context of legal proceedings relating to encouraging or assisting suicide.

All this should provide much clarity for doctors and relieve the pressure on GPs. Previously, a patient would sometimes need to seek out a sympathetic doctor who was willing to provide a report. However, although these new guidelines should ease the situation, as one doctor told me, “Much of what we write in a patient’s records is in code anyway, so the patient can be none the wiser after accessing their records.” Much of this code-language seems to relate to private thoughts about a patient that shouldn’t appear in print. Hopefully it would not affect meaningful information relating to an unbearable condition. Neither should it be assumed that a doctor will cooperate in providing medical information beyond the terms of the Data Protection Act. Please note that there is a small fee applicable to obtaining your medical records in the UK.

Under the Data Protection Act 1998, you have a legal right to apply for access to health information held about you. This includes NHS or private health records, whether held by a GP or by a hospital. If you want to see your health records, you don’t have to give a reason. NHS guidance recommends it is a good idea to state the dates of the records when you apply. The health records manager, GP or other healthcare professional will decide whether your request can be approved. They can in theory refuse your request if, for example, they believe that releasing the information may cause serious harm to your physical or mental health or that of another person. Under the Data Protection Act, requests for access to records should be met within 40 days. However, government guidance for healthcare organisations says they should aim to respond within 21 days.

Further information:
GMC guidance on assisted suicide
Download the GMC document
NHS guidance on obtaining your medical records
Mail Online, GPs’ secret language revealed, 10 March 2011.
Medical slang in British Hospitals

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