Jane Campbell: Life-and-death decisions should not be left to doctors

From a speech by the Disability Rights Commissioner, given to the Royal Society Medicine Conference

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On 30 July Judge Mumby delivered his verdict in the High Court, in the case of Regina v the General Medical Council. Regina in this case acted for Mr Oliver Leslie Burke, a 43-year-old man with cerebella ataxia. Mr Burke challenged the GMC's guidelines set out in its pamphlet, "Withholding and Withdrawing Life Prolonging Treatments: Good Practice and Decision Making".

In the main the court found for Mr Burke, although the GMC was given leave to appeal. The Disability Rights Commission intervened in the case and I gave evidence as an expert witness. We support the decision of the court and will seek for it to be upheld on appeal.

We see the court's verdict as marking a significant event in the history of disability rights within UK healthcare provision. It aims to equalise the power relationship between doctor and patient. Both have a breadth of knowledge and experience not available to the other.

The court considered the knowledge base of both patient and doctor to be of equal merit and that neither should take precedence over the other as a matter of course. And that in the final analysis the patient's wish for life-prolonging treatment should be provided unless, by doing so, it prolonged an intolerable situation.

When I heard the verdict I felt a surge of euphoria. The court understood, perhaps for the first time, that doctors should not be asked or expected to pass sole judgement on what is "in the best interest" of the severely ill or disabled patient.

I know that many physicians across the UK were equally relieved. When life-and-death decisions have to be taken, it is time to share the burden. Who better than with the patient or their chosen close relatives, friends and advocates that they trust?

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