06/10/2014 10:00 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 01:23 EDT

Physician-assisted death divides Canadians, medical panel hears

Canadians are split on physician-assisted death and other end-of-life care issues such as physician-assisted death that need to be discussed with families and loved ones, a national tour by the Canadian Medical Association has heard.

The medical group released its final report from its end-of-life tour in Ottawa on Tuesday, based on the findings of town halls in five Canadian cities.

"We had been concerned that assisted death was sucking up all the attention from the crying need for palliative care in this country," CMA President Dr. Louis Hugo Francescutti said in a release that lauds last month's unanimous, non-binding federal resolution calling for a pan-Canadian strategy on palliative care.

Fewer than 30 per cent of Canadians who will die this year will have access to palliative care, the medical group said.

Many participants at the town halls recounted stories of poor end-of-life care received by relatives. Canadians also decried a lack of comprehensive palliative care services, particularly outside major cities.

The group's conclusions include:

- All Canadians should discuss end-of-life wishes with their families or other loved ones.

- All Canadians should prepare advance care directives that are appropriate and binding for the jurisdiction in which they live.

- A national palliative care strategy is needed.

- All Canadians should have access to appropriate palliative care services.

- Medical students, residents and practising physicians need more education and training about palliative care approaches and greater knowledge about advance care directives.

- Should Canada change laws to allow physician-assisted dying, strict protocols and safeguards are needed to protect vulnerable individuals and populations.

Last week, Quebec's Bill 52, also known as an act respecting end-of-life care, passed in a free vote.

The Supreme Court of Canada is scheduled to hear a key appeal on end-of-life care in October. If the top court strikes down the laws prohibiting physician-assisted death when it hears an appeal by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, the family of Kay Carter and others, doctors could be left in a legal vacuum, according to a commentary in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

The federal government has said it has no intention to change the criminal law against physician-assisted dying.

The CMA's town halls were held in St. John's, Vancouver, Whitehorse, Regina and Mississauga from February to May. Online comments were also considered.