04/26/2017 12:53 EDT | Updated 04/26/2017 17:02 EDT

Just over 800 Canadians received medical help to die in first six months

OTTAWA — Just over 800 Canadians received medical help to end their lives during the first six months of a federal law that restricts medical assistance in dying to individuals who are already near death.

An interim report by the federal government shows there were 803 medically assisted deaths between last June 17, when the law was enacted, and the end of December.

An additional 167 assisted deaths occurred prior to last June in Quebec, which adopted its own law on medically assisted dying in December 2015.

The report says only a tiny fraction — 0.4 per cent — of the assisted deaths involved individuals who self-administered a lethal drug; the vast majority sought the aid of a medical professional.

Roughly an equal number of men and women, with an average age of about 72, took advantage of the new law, which allows assisted dying only for individuals in an advanced state of irreversible decline from an incurable condition and for whom natural death is "reasonably foreseeable."

The report does not specify how many requests for assisted death were rejected.

The most common underlying medical conditions which prompted individuals to receive assistance to end their lives were cancer (56.8 per cent), neuro-degenerative diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (23.2 per cent) and circulatory-respiratory conditions (10.5 per cent).

About half the assisted deaths occurred in hospitals, while some 37 per cent took place in the home, six per cent in long-term care facilities and seven per cent elsewhere, according to the report released Wednesday.

Some 65 per cent of the assisted deaths were in large urban centres, 34 per cent in smaller communities.

The statistics are somewhat sketchy given that the report is based on information provided to the federal government by provincial and territorial governments, which are responsible for the delivery of health care and which use different reporting methods.

Nor do they include data from Yukon or Nunavut, due to privacy concerns arising from the small numbers of individuals in those territories who received an assisted death.

The federal government is in the process of developing national regulations for collecting and publicly reporting on information related to requests for and provision of medical assistance in dying. Those regulations are not expected to come into force until next year.

In the meantime, federal and provincial governments are collaborating to issue interim reports, of which Wednesday's is the first.

The scope of data currently available on medically assisted deaths is "relatively limited," the report acknowledges.