Doctor calls for discussion on death and prolonging life

THE quest to prolong life, when should doctors stop treating the disease and begin treating the person?

This is the question posed by Australian Medical Association president Dr Steve Hambleton as he calls for a measured discussion on what it means to die in Australia.

There are times, he says, when people's lives are prolonged by modern medicine, even if it means their final hours, weeks or months are spent grappling with side effects.

"At some point in time, the switch goes from aggressively treating the disease to managing the symptoms of the disease," Dr Hambleton said.

"It is about changing our focus from quantity of life to quality of life."

In regional areas, those approaching death may leave their home, town and family to seek treatment in a city hospital.

Although reluctant to discuss funding or costs, Dr Hambleton said it was often cheaper for a terminally ill person to stay at home -if reluctant to leave - than for them to seek help away from their support network.


During advanced stages of illness, treatments can be a high-risk, low gain option.

"We can continue to treat (the disease) aggressively but it may not be in the patient's best interest," Dr Hambleton said.

A treatment might have a 10% chance of benefit, but Dr Hambleton said, "If I explain it to you, it is a 90% chance of no benefit with significant side effects...".

"Nobody is saying you shouldn't have your cancer or medical illness treated properly," he said.

"It's about having a discussion that is clear, realistic and gives people the appropriate information to make the decision for themselves."

Queensland Health Minister Lawrence Springborg welcomed the discussion.

He said ensuring a patient's quality of life ought to be the paramount concern.

"Sometimes this will be achieved without the use of medical intervention," he said.

"It's so important that all families have a conversation about what type of care they want and that this information is passed on to their care provider."

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