Does your doctor know your end of life care treatment rights? palliative care, cancer, dying

It seems like a really straight forward and easy question, doesn’t it?  If you’re like most people, your answer would be Yes.  I asked the following question on Facebook

Do you expect your doctor/specialist to know what the laws are around withholding and withdrawing life-sustaining treatment in end of life care?

Yes or No.

The response was a resounding Yes!

But perhaps they don’t…

The results of a study done in 2012/2013 suggest otherwise.

“Our results demonstrate critical gaps in the legal knowledge of many doctors who practise end-of-life medicine.”

Quoting the article published in the Medical Journal of Australia (click here for the link to the full report).

The results…

Of those who responded, “the mean correct response for the knowledge of law questions overall was 3.26 (out of a possible score of 7).”

That means less than half got the answers right.


Let that sink in for a moment…


The study…

The study was undertaken by the Australian Centre for Health Law Research, Queensland University of Technology.

Surveys were sent to 2,858 medical practitioners who were all specialists in the following areas:

  • Emergency Medicine
  • Geriatric Medicine
  • Intensive Care
  • Medical Oncology
  • Palliative Care
  • Renal Medicine
  • Respiratory Medicine

According to the report on the findings of the study, “these specialities were chosen as these specialities are likely to be involved in making decisions about whether to withhold or withdraw life-sustaining treatment.”

The response rate was 32%, totalling 867 responses.

The survey was broken into a number of areas, but questions about the following areas were asked in the knowledge of the law section:

  • Three concerning the validity of an advance directive
  • Two concerning consent from and the authority of substitute decision makers
  • One dealing with both issues
  • Which of four plausible decision makers had legal authority to make medical decisions for a patient without capacity

Why does this matter?

This matter, because in the words of the report,
“For patients, the outcome of such decisions is that, at least as a matter of law, their lives are being ended wrongly.  Conversely, life-sustaining treatment may be unlawfully provided: for example, despite a lawful refusal of treatment through an advance directive or by a substitute decision maker.”


To put it crudely, people’s lives may be ended or sustained against their wishes.


What can you do about this?

  • Do you know what your legal rights are when it comes to accepting and refusing treatment at the end of your life?
  • Do you know that there is a document that can capture your medical wishes when you are unable to communicate them?
  • Do you know that there is a document that can legally authorise others to speak on your behalf when you can’t?


In Australia 70% of deaths are expected, so for most of us, these documents may well come into play for our end journeys.

The results of this study make it very clear; we as individuals have to ensure that we know our rights.  We also need to ensure that those we entrust to speak on our behalf when we can’t, not only know our wishes, but know their rights as well.

How can you find out this information?

I get that this can feel a bit overwhelming and you may feel like you have no idea where to start.  That’s why I have created some Advance Care Planning Workshops that cover these legal issues and also some personal aspects of this experience as well.

These workshops are being run in multiple locations throughout Queensland (stay tuned Bundaberg, Rockhampton/Yeppoon, Mackay, Townsville & Cairns – I’m coming your way in June) or are available by working with me 1:1 over the internet.

You can find out all the details by clicking here.

Your doctor may not be fully aware, but you can be.