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Serious Flaws in Survey on Physician-Assisted Dying

Dr Catherine Hallagan, Chair NZHPA
General Practitioner, Wellington

Many health professionals will have recently received an invitation from their professional organisation to participate in an online survey regarding “physician-assisted dying”.

The research approved by the University of Auckland’s Human Participants Ethics Committee (UAHPEC) appears to have process and methodology flaws that should be of concern to all health professionals who were asked to participate.

First, the source of funding for the research is not disclosed, as required by UAHPEC.

The UAHPEC Manual also requires that every participant should receive a Participant Information Sheet (PIS) when they are invited to participate. A comprehensive PIS was not provided at the start, nor was it provided when specifically requested.

Second, incomplete and inaccurate information is provided. For example, reference is made to overseas jurisdictions that have some form of legalised euthanasia and/or assisted suicide, but no reference is made to the many more jurisdictions that have rejected it, including both the British and Scottish Parliaments in recent months. Nor is any distinction made between different jurisdictions such as Oregon (lethal prescription permitted for a person over 18) and Belgium (euthanasia permitted with no lower age limit).

Respondents are instead directed to a Wikipedia page for further information!

Third, participants engage in the online survey through an unprotected web-link. There is no verification procedure to ensure that a respondent is a New Zealander or, in fact, is a health professional. There is no procedure to prevent multiple responses. There can, therefore, be no confidence in the integrity of the data collected.

Finally, the question and response options in the survey are leading ones. Question 13, for example, says, “What do you see as the role or responsibility of your professional body/ies (together with others) if assisted dying is legalised in New Zealand?” It asks participants to state their agreement or disagreement with various possibilities. The first option is: “a. Providing a position statement on assisted dying”.

Despite all the pro-euthanasia and assisted suicide information noted above, the researchers fail to inform participants that the NZMA already has a statement on this issue which declares it would be unethical even if it were legal.

Academic freedom to investigate complex and contentious issues is vitally important in a democratic society. With this freedom comes the responsibility to conduct research in a rigorous, professional way.

It is regrettable that this survey has not met the University of Auckland’s own research standards.

This is Catherine Hallagan’s personal viewpoint. She is a RNZCGP fellow, NZMA board member and chair of the NZ Health Professionals Alliance Inc, a society advocating for freedom of conscience in healthcare.

First published in the New Zealand Doctor on 14 October 2015. Republished with permission.