July 25, 2008

GP at Centre of Suicide Row Suspended

By Lyndsay Moss Health Correspondent

CAMPAIGNERS yesterday called for a change in the law to allow patients to ask for help to end their lives, after a Scottish GP was suspended for prescribing sleeping pills to an elderly woman so she could kill herself.

Dr Iain Kerr, a family doctor in Glasgow, was found guilty of misconduct after prescribing the pills to an elderly patient with osteoporosis, who went on to kill herself using other drugs.

Yesterday, the General Medical Council (GMC) suspended the 61- year-old from practising medicine for six months after a two-week hearing in Manchester.

Campaigners said the case highlighted the "moral ambiguity" of cases where patients ask for help to end their lives

But the medical profession stood firm, saying the role of doctors was to protect the vulnerable and give all patients as good a quality of life as is possible, rather than helping them to die.

Dr Kerr prescribed 30 sodium amytal sleeping pills to the former businesswoman in 1998 after she told him she had considered suicide.

His actions go against the Hippocratic Oath, the classical principles to which doctors should adhere in their treatment of patients, which includes the statement: "I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect."

The GMC found that the Glasgow GP's fitness to practise was impaired and branded his actions "inappropriate, irresponsible, liable to bring the profession into disrepute and not in your patient's best interest".

Dignity in Dying, which campaigns for better access to palliative care and a change in the law to allow mentally competent, terminally ill adults in unbearable suffering to have the option of an assisted death, expressed concerns about Dr Kerr's case. Its spokesman, James Harris, said: "We do not condone anybody taking the law into their own hands and we are greatly saddened by this case."

Scottish group Friends at the End (Fate) also campaigns for a change in the law to allow doctor-assisted suicide so that patients who wish to can end their own lives with dignity. Yesterday, they expressed sympathy for the position in which Dr Kerr found himself. Spokeswoman Sheila Duffy said: "It is sad to witness an obviously well- respected and compassionate GP being dragged in front of the panel to justify his actions towards an 87-year-old patient who plainly knew her own mind and wished to end her life."

Margo MacDonald, the MSP who suffers from Parkinson's disease and joined the debate on assisted suicide when she told the Scottish Parliament she wanted the right to end her own life, welcomed the news that Dr Kerr had not been struck off the medical register completely.

Suzanne Goddard, QC, counsel for the GMC, said that what Dr Kerr did was "akin to handing her a noose with which to hang herself at a time of her choosing".

The woman, who was identified only as Patient A, later disposed of the sleeping tablets that Dr Kerr gave her because she did not want to get the GP into trouble after learning he was being investigated by health chiefs for his views on assisted suicide.

Police took no action against Dr Kerr after finding there was "insufficient evidence".

Speaking after the hearing, an emotional Dr Kerr thanked family, friends and his wife for supporting him.


* At present, there is no legislation in Scotland covering suicide. Anyone who assists another person in a successful suicide or a suicide attempt is usually charged with culpable homicide.

* In England and Wales, such an action would be covered by the Suicide Act 1961, which prohibits assisting suicide.

* The British Medical Association (BMA) is clear in its opposition to such actions. Dr George Fernie, a member of the BMA's Scottish Council, said: "In 2006, the BMA voted against legalising physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. The primary goal of medicine is to promote welfare, protect the vulnerable and give all patients as good a quality of life as is possible."

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