Wednesday, October 17, 2012

'Death' pathway: Action at last?

After more complaints that hospital patients have been placed on the Liverpool Care Pathway without relatives being consulted, and allowed to die, Labour health spokesman Andy Burnham MP is said to have called for an urgent review.

Is this just a political stance? Or is there some hope that something will follow?

The Liverpool Care Pathway is intended to help patients whose death is imminent, allowing sedation and the withdrawal of intrusive treatment. I wrote about deaths on the LCP here, here and here.

Mrs Marion Hebbourne's aunt, 85-year-old Olive Goom, was admitted to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital with a broken bone, according to the Daily Mail. Mrs Hebbourne was preparing for her aunt to be released.

On the Saturday she telephoned and asked if she should visit, but was told there were no worries. On the Sunday she visited and found her aunt being prepared for the mortuary. She had been placed on the LCP without relatives' knowledge and had died alone.

The same paper reports that 83-year-old Phyllis Nicholls was admitted to Epsom Hospital with a urinary infection. Her drip was removed and morphine administered. Her daughter found by accident that she had been placed on the end-of-life pathway, but too late to save her.

The question is - how does it come about that something like the LCP, with its life and death issues, can be administered so carelessly?

Melanie Phillips, writing in the Mail, says the Liverpool Care Pathway has become a backdoor form of euthanasia, used as "an obscene abuse of people who expect the NHS to care for them, not kill them."

She writes:

How can hospitals governed by the ethical imperative to 'first do no harm' be killing patients in their care? How can the NHS have been turned in these circumstances into a National Death Service?. . . 

It has arisen from a profound confusion in society caused by a collapse of moral absolutes and a resulting inability to make the key distinction between dying and killing. . .

First, the word 'dying' has been applied to people suffering from terminal illness or who are considered by doctors or other experts to have lives that are not worth living, even when they are not dying at all.

The second stage in this abuse of language has been to re-label actions designed to end the life of someone who is not dying by calling this 'helping them to die.'

Such actions include the withdrawal of food or water. But that is starving or dehydrating someone to death. And that is not helping them to die, but killing them.

Yet that is precisely what has been happening, ever since the courts ruled in 1993 that the feeding tubes could be removed from the Hillsborough stadium disaster victim Tony Bland, who was in a persistent vegetative state, because such artificial nutrition and hydration were deemed to be 'treatment.'

The judges disingenuously claimed then that this was not killing, but allowing Tony Bland to die. But he was not dying.

With this case a fateful legal line was crossed. And so 'dying' has become a euphemism for killing.

The fundamental driver of all this is the belief that certain people are better off dead because their lives are deemed worthless, a drain on the public purse, or both.

The Liverpool Killing Pathway is driven not just by crude economic calculation, but by a wider brutalisation of our culture, at the heart of which lies the erosion of respect for the innate value of human life.