A qualitative study of experiences of institutional objection to medical assistance in dying in Canada: ongoing challenges and catalysts for change

BMC Med Ethics. 2023 Sep 21;24(1):71. doi: 10.1186/s12910-023-00950-9.

Abstract

Background: In June 2016, Canada legalized medical assistance in dying (MAiD). From the outset, some healthcare institutions (including faith-based and non-faith-based hospitals, hospices, and residential aged care facilities) have refused to allow aspects of MAiD onsite, resulting in patient transfers for MAiD assessments and provision. There have been media reports highlighting the negative consequences of these "institutional objections", however, very little research has examined their nature and impact.

Methods: This study reports on findings from 48 semi-structured qualitative interviews conducted with MAiD assessors and providers, MAiD team members (working to coordinate care and lead MAiD programs in institutions and health authorities), and family caregivers on their experiences with institutional objection. Participants were recruited from the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Ontario, and Nova Scotia. Data were analyzed using inductive thematic analysis.

Results: Themes identified were: (1) basis for institutional objection (with objections commonly rooted in religious values and a particular philosophy of palliative care); (2) scope of objection (demonstrating a wide range of practices objected to); (3) lack of transparency regarding institutional position; (4) impacts on patients; (5) impacts on health practitioners; and (6) catalysts for change. Participants reported that many institutions' objections had softened over time, lessening barriers to MAiD access and adverse impacts on patients and health practitioners. Participants attributed this positive change to a range of catalysts including advocacy by health practitioners and family members, policymaking by local health authorities, education, and relationship building. Nevertheless, some institutions, particularly faith-based ones, retained strong objections to MAiD, resulting in forced transfers and negative emotional and psychological impacts on patients, family members, and health practitioners.

Conclusions: This paper adds to the limited evidence base about the impacts of institutional objection and can inform practical and regulatory solutions in Canada and abroad. Reform is needed to minimize the negative impacts on patients, their caregivers, and health practitioners involved in MAiD practice.

Keywords: Assisted dying; Assisted suicide; Conscientious objection; Euthanasia; Health professional experience; Institutional objection; Medical assistance in dying; Patient experience.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Educational Status
  • Emotions
  • Hospices*
  • Humans
  • Ontario
  • Qualitative Research