Doctor who prescribes lethal drugs ‘not a risk to public’

Julia Medew

A Melbourne doctor, who has given scores of sick people a lethal drug, has won a fight against the medical board, with a tribunal ruling his practice is consistent with other forms of palliative care.

In a decision that could set a precedent for other doctors want­ing to help patients die, the Victori­an Civil and Administrative Tribu­nal has ruled Dr Rodney Syme does not pose a risk to the public, even though he gave about 170 people a drug that could end their lives.

In January, the Medical Board of Australia took urgent action against Dr Syme after it was told he was planning to give Nembutal to Bernard Erica, a 71-year-old Brighton [metropolitan Melbourne] man who was dying of tongue and lung cancer.

Mr Erica had sought Dr Syme’s help because he wanted to die at home and have control over his own death.

Upon learning of this, the board ordered Dr Syme not to “engage in the provision of any form of medic­al care, or any professional conduct in his capacity as a medical practi­tioner that has the primary pur­pose of ending a person’s life”.

The order was made on the basis that Dr Syme, an 81-year-old urolo­gist and vice-president of Dying with Dignity, posed a serious risk to people, including Mr Erica.

But Dr Syme challenged this in VCAT last month, arguing that his provision of Nembutal to people with intolerable suffering was not done with the primary intention of ending life, but to relieve suffering.

His lawyers argued that this was consistent with the doctrine of “double effect” in medicine, which permits doctors to administer drugs or other treatments to re­lieve symptoms even if there is a consequence of hastening death.

Dr Syme told the tribunal he had counselled about 1700 people with terminal illnesses or intolerable suffering over many years, and had provided about 10 per cent of them with Nembutal. He estimated about 40 per cent of them actually took the drug to end their lives, and that all of them benefited from knowing they had the option.

The tribunal overturned the order on Dr Syme’s medical registration, ruling that Dr Syme’s intentions were consistent with the Australian Medical Association’s advice to doctors that all patients have a right to receive relief from pain even where that may shorten their lives.

Dr Syme said he felt “completely vindicated” by the finding.

If you are troubled by this report, you can call Lifeline on 131 114 or beyondblue on 1300 224 636.