End of life planning is something very personal to everyone, and while some wish for everything possible to be done to extend their life, others prefer to pass away peacefully without as much medical intervention.
But now two doctors have launched a controversial debate during a chat – broadcast on an ABC radio show – by claiming the wishes of the dying are becoming almost overshadowed by medical professionals’ need to try everything to keep people alive.
With major advances in both technology and medical breakthroughs in recent years, more people can be treated for illnesses that a few decades ago would have been incurable.
In fact, while patients were likely to die at home with less medical intervention a few decades ago, more will now face a series of hospital stays and appointments to try to save them and give them a longer life.
ABC radio host Geraldine Doogue spoke to intensive care specialist Ken Hillman at this year’s Sydney Writers Festival, and the conversation was broadcast on ABC Radio National’s Saturday Extra show. There, Hillman claimed it’s actually now become “extremely difficult to die”.
Comparing his grandfather’s death in 1959 to his own mother’s more recently, he said his grandfather died in his own room with little medical intervention – while his mother had 22 hospital stays in the last six months of her life.
“Most people’s grandfathers died at home in those days, because the general practitioner was the last medical representative in that line. If he said ‘there’s nothing more to offer’, then there was nothing more to offer,” he explained on the radio show.
He believes there’s now a social expectation that every illness should try to be fixed, with doctors themselves believing they should try to keep people alive for as long as possible.
“Doctors hate saying, ‘I can’t do anything’. We’re curers, healers, miracle workers,” he added.
Essentially, Professor Hillman believes the lines have been blurred, and it’s now hard to decide when it’s better for a life to end, rather than continue in pain.
Dr Charlie Corke was on the show with him and agreed, urging families to speak openly about their end of life plans to avoid family members being put in a difficult position in the first place.
He added that it’s the job of medical practitioners to ensure they’re honest about what a certain treatment will achieve, and added: “This idea of, ‘whatever it takes – try and try again’ has become our mantra.”
It comes amid a long-running debate about euthanasia laws in Australia, which recently fired up again after Australia’s oldest scientist, Dr David Goodall, chose to fly to Switzerland to end his life.
“I greatly regret having reached that age,” the renowned scientist told the ABC at the time. “I’m not happy. I want to die. It’s not sad particularly. What is sad is if one is prevented. If one choose to kills oneself, then that should be fair enough. I don’t think anyone else should interfere.”
Western Australia is in the process of passing a law to make voluntary euthanasia legal, but Premier Mark McGowan previously confirmed it would only apply to people who are terminally ill. Victoria voted to make euthanasia legal last year, but it is also only available to those who are terminally ill.