Canadians are getting a better idea of how many people are choosing medically-assisted death in the country, three years after the federal government made it legal. Shanaaz Gokool, CEO of Dying With Dignity, a charity committed to improving quality of dying in Canada, says there are still some unknowns surrounding the procedure.
According to information from the Ontario government, as of Aug. 31, 2018, a total of 2,000 medically-assisted deaths were performed in Ontario. Ninety-seven of those procedures were performed in the Waterloo and Wellington area — which includes Guelph — between September 2017 and May 2019.
Waterloo and Wellington has a slightly higher rate of medically-assisted deaths than the rest of Canada, said Shanaaz Gokool, CEO of Dying With Dignity, a charity committed to improving quality of dying in Canada.
As of October 2018, statistics showed 1.4 per cent of all deaths in Waterloo and Wellington are by medically-assisted death, versus about 1 per cent for Canada as a whole.
Gokool said the total number of medically-assisted deaths in Canada since 2016 is about 8,000.
“Some people think that’s a lot, but when you consider Canada has, on average, about 260,000 deaths a year, it’s actually a very small percentage,” said Gokool.
She expects that percentage to go up as the population continues to age, more people become aware of the procedure and as more clinicians become familiar and able to provide assisted dying.
“As assisted dying is further integrated into health care in Canada, and more people know about it, the numbers will probably rise,” said Gokool.
The youngest patient to receive medically-assisted death in Ontario was 22 years old, with an average age for the procedure being 74. The gender split for the procedure was fairly even, with 50.5 per cent of the patients receiving medically-assisted death being male and 49.5 per cent female.
Sixty-four per cent of the patients had 'cancer-related' listed as the underlying symptom, 16 per cent were listed as having 'cardiovascular or respiratory' ailments and 12 per cent were listed under 'neurodegenerative,' like ALS or MS. Eight per cent were listed as ‘other.’
Fifty per cent of the medically-assisted death procedures were performed in hospital, while 42 per cent occurred in private residences. Only eight per cent of the procedures were conducted in retirement homes or long-term care homes.
Gokool said some facilities refuse to offer assisted death, forcing patients who are seeking the procedure to be moved to a facility that will.
“We don’t find out these stories until people come out and tell us and even once they tell us — they don’t want to go public,” she said. “These facilities can post their policies, but if they don’t have them posted, there is nothing that obligates them to tell us or anyone else, including the residents they are supposed to be serving.”
Because of a provision put in place by the Ontario government in 2017, freedom of information requests can not be made in relation to facilities regarding medically-assisted dying.
“That is a real problem for transparency and accountability,” said Gokool. “We know the transfers are happening all across the province, but we can’t get access to that information. There is no data to help us understand how many people have been in this unfortunate situation to endure a forced transfer,” she said.