Court backs right to medical treatment

    Patients’ rights to life-prolonging treatment were boosted last
    week by a landmark High Court ruling.

    Leslie Burke, 44, who has a degenerative brain condition, sought
    clarification over when artificial nutrition and hydration can be
    lawfully withdrawn, fearing that his wish to die naturally could be
    overridden by doctors under existing General Medical Council
    guidance.

    The court ruled that Burke and anybody else who asked for
    life-prolonging treatment should have their wishes met unless the
    patient had “lapsed into a coma”, lacking all awareness of what was
    happening.

    It also ruled that if a patient was incompetent and had not
    expressed any prior view, doctors should only stop life-prolonging
    treatment if the patient would view their life to be “intolerable”
    if prolonged.

    The Disability Rights Commission said the intolerability test –
    already used by the courts – was set much higher than current GMC
    guidelines.

    Burke’s solicitor, Paul Conrathe, added that the judgement
    represented a “significant shift in the balance of power away from
    the doctor to the patient and from the medical profession to the
    courts”.

    Burke argued that certain aspects of the GMC guidance were unlawful
    as they were incompatible with his rights under the European
    Convention on Human Rights.

    Mr Justice Munby said that, although the overall content and
    approach of the GMC guidance should greatly reassure patients and
    their relatives, it was “vulnerable to criticism”.

    The GMC said that, although the judgement provided “helpful
    clarification” in a number of areas, there were others where
    further clarification was needed and it had therefore sought leave
    to appeal.

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