Imagine that you have a serious illness, disease or disability which is at a stage where it cannot be reversed, where you are suffering unbearably and where your death is reasonably foreseeable. While a very hard decision to make, very ill Canadians now have an additional option when it comes to the end of their life.

In June 2016, a law passed that gives Canadians the legal right to medically assisted dying. But what does that actually mean?

Catherine Gaulton, vice-president of the Nova Scotia Health Authority, says it’s a big change for health professionals and the general public, as what was once prohibited becomes regulated.

“For patients, their best point of contact is their primary healthcare provider; either their nurse practitioner or their physician,” she says.

Sandra Janes, a health services director at the QEII says healthcare professionals have been educating themselves on the new law.

“We’ve worked really closely with the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the College of Pharmacists and the College of Registered Nurses so the regulating bodies and Nova Scotia Health Authority can help healthcare professionals understand what the change means for their practice and how they can help patients with their questions,” says Sandra.

Patients must meet specific criteria surrounding age, ability to consent, and medical condition, among other factors. Minors and people suffering from mental health problems as the underlying condition, for which medical assistance in dying is requested, are not covered by the change in law. The law requires that this and issues around the ability to make an advance decision about medical assistance in dying will be studied further.

Two doctors or nurse practitioners must assess a patient’s situation and agree that the patient meets the criteria.


If a patient chooses medical assisted dying, they can still withdraw their consent at any time, or leave it for another day to take the final steps. Dr. Lynne Harrigan, vice-president of the Nova Scotia Health Authority’s Medicine and Integrated Health Services, says people can decide to have the procedure at home or in hospital. For now, and until an appropriate oral medication regimen is in place, medical assistance in dying requires the assistance of a nurse practitioner or physician.

“It is absolutely respectful of the patient’s decisions,” Dr. Harrigan says.

Dr. Harrigan, Catherine and Sandra say that while this is one choice patients can make for their end-of-life care, it is not their only choice. Patients can and do make many choices as to how they wish to live and receive health care, such as palliative care, during their final days.

“It is really a lovely thing to be able to help somebody work through a decision like this,” says Sandra. “You have time to plan. Time to find the right time and setting to achieve that calmness.”

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