Liability for failure to effectively manage morbidly obese patients: it’s time to look again at Varipatis v Almario – here’s why

What should a GP do with a morbidly obese patient who is in denial about their weight problem?

Although it involved a complex set of facts, it’s time to revisit Almario v Varipatis (No 2) [2012] NSWSC 1578, reversed on appeal (Varipatis v Almario [2013] NSWCA 76).

Doctors should take no comfort in the fact that Dr Varipatis’ liability was reversed on appeal.  It’s doubtful the case would be decided the same way today.  This post explains why.

Judgments in both courts remain important for their discussion about what a GP’s duty of care requires in terms of specialist referral [see box at the end of this post].

In future, more and more Australian GPs will end up managing obesity and its complications.  The problem is only going to get worse, given the changes in the weight distribution of the population, and the reluctance of Australian governments to take prevention seriously.  In 2014-2015, 63.4% of Australian adults – that’s 11.2 million people – were either overweight or obese, and more than 5% had diabetes.

280 Australians develop preventable Type II diabetes each day (one person every five minutes).

Click here for a recent report prepared by Obesity Australia in partnership with PwC on the cost of obesity in Australia.

Revisiting Almario v Varipatis (No 2)

At the time he became a patient of Dr Varipatis, in 1997, Mr Almario had fatty liver disease and diabetes.  Both problems arose from his obesity.  Both problems were risk factors for more severe kinds of liver disease that could progress to cirrhosis and ultimately liver cancer.

However, Mr Almario was in denial about his weight problem, and believed his health problems were due to exposure to toxic chemicals in the workplace.

Mr Almario had previously worked as a cleaner at the Union Carbide Centre at Rhodes in Sydney, which was a contaminated site.  Mr Almario was not directly involved in remediating the site, but had cleaned toilets and showers used by those who were directly involved.

There was no evidence his liver problems were caused by toxic exposures.

Nevertheless, Mr Almario sought out Dr Varipatis because the latter had an interest in nutritional and environmental medicine.

In 2009 Dr Varipatis had been found guilty of unsatisfactory professional conduct for administering high doses of IV vitamin C to a patient with renal disease.

Dr Varipatis treated Mr Almario between August 1997 and February 2011.  Mr Almario developed cirrhosis in 2001, and this progressed to liver cancer in 2011.

Trial court decision

When it reached the NSW Supreme Court in 2012, Mr Almario’s legal case was essentially that Dr Varipatis’ duty of care required him to take active steps to address Mr Almario’s morbid obesity.

Mr Almario had a history of failed weight loss attempts, and given his beliefs about toxic exposures, he was not a compliant patient.  Nevertheless, there were two main opportunities to prevent further deterioration to Mr Almario’s health: to refer him to a multi-disciplinary obesity clinic or endocrinologist; or to refer him for assessment for bariatric surgery (waist band surgery that physically constricts the size of the stomach and the amount of food that can enter it).

Mr Almario’s case was based on the claim that if he had undergone bariatric surgery, then it was likely he would have lost significant weight: this would have halted the progression of liver disease, preventing the cirrhosis and liver cancer that are complications of liver disease.

In his judgment, the trial judge repeatedly said that the patient had the disease of morbid obesity and that it was life threatening: Almario v Varipatis (No 2) [2012] NSWSC 1578 (21 December 2012), [67], [83], [93], [98].

The trial judge found that given Mr Almario’s co-morbidities and history of failed weight loss attempts, a reasonable GP would have referred Mr Almario to a surgeon for assessment for bariatric surgery by mid-1998: [91]-[93].

In addition, the trial judge found that Dr Varipatis breached his duty of care in failing – by mid 1998 – to refer Mr Almario to a specialist in obesity management who could have investigated all options for managing Mr Almario’s morbid obesity: [98].

The trial judge stressed that management of a patient like Mr Almario was not a passive process.  “More pro-active involvement was required” even to the point of making the appointment for Mr Almario to attend an obesity management specialist: [97].

Varipatis on appeal

On appeal, the NSW Court of Appeal considered three issues.

(i) Doctors may have a duty to refer (although it is not an exercise in futility)

The Court of Appeal said unambiguously that a general practitioner’s duty of reasonable care to their patient may require them to encourage the patient to lose weight, and to encourage the patient to accept an appropriate referral.

Basten JA accepted that the duty of reasonable care may require a GP to advise a patient “in unequivocal terms that weight loss is necessary to protect his or her health, to discuss the means by which that may be achieved and to offer (and encourage acceptance of) referrals to appropriate specialists or clinics”: Varipatis v Almario [2013] NSWCA 76, [38].

On the other hand, that didn’t mean the GP has to write futile referrals if the patient has refused to take the doctor’s firm advice.

The duty of care is not an exercise in futility.

In this case, since the plaintiff had historically failed to follow the advice of his GP, the Court of Appeal thought that there could be no breach of duty in failing to “re-refer” the plaintiff to an obesity clinic: Varipatis v Almario [2013] NSWCA 76, [38]-[39], [114], [118].

(ii) Failure to refer for assessment for bariatric surgery was not a breach of duty (but is that a reasonable conclusion today?)

As far as referral for bariatric surgery was concerned, the Court of Appeal found that the weight of evidence did not support a duty to refer for assessment for bariatric surgery in 1998, since at that time the procedure still carried significant risks and was very uncommon: Varipatis v Almario [2013] NSWCA 76, [51][64], [118].

However, general practitioners should find no comfort in this finding.

Bariatric surgery is now much more common and performed on patients with a BMI of ≥40k/m2 or on those with a BMI of 35k/m2 or more and who have co-morbidies such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease.

Over the past 15 years, the number of bariatric procedures processed by the Australian Medicare system has risen from around 1,350 (2000) to more than 16,700 (2015).

(iii) Failure to refer to an hepatologist?

Thirdly, the trial judge, and the Court of Appeal found that even if the plaintiff had been referred to a hepatologist, Mr Varipatis would have failed (in the absence of bariatric surgery) to achieve weight loss.

Obesity was not understood to be a cause of liver disease before 2002, and there was no evidence that a hepatologist would have done anything other than advise the patient to lose weight, or refer the plaintiff to an obesity clinic: Almario v Varpiatis (No 2) [2012] NSWSC 1578, [155]-[157]; Varipatis v Almario [2013] NSWCA 76, [75]-[88], [118].

Understanding about the role of obesity in liver disease has developed since Dr Varipatis was treating Mr Almario, and if this case were re-litigated today, a court would be unlikely to conclude that no harm arose from failure to refer for specialist assessment.

Meagher JA also dismissed the appeal on the basis that a doctor will not be liable if a defendant can prove that, having taken a course of action that was consistent with reasonable care, the harm suffered would not have been avoided on the balance of probabilities.

In his Honour’s view, in circumstances where a doctor could discharge their duty by taking one or more precautions, the defendant doctor need only show that had they taken one of the precautions that was consistent with reasonable care, it would not likely have avoided the harm suffered by the plaintiff: Varipatis v Almario [2013] NSWCA 76, [106], [118].

 

So…why is the Varipatis decision worth re-visiting?

Dr Varipatis was essentially excused by the fact that his patient had a history of being unable or unwilling to follow advice, bariatric surgery for extreme obesity was still unusual in 1998, and because obesity was not understood as a cause of liver disease.

Close to 20 years later, the factual matrix that arose in Varipatis is really a wake-up call for medical practitioners to respond more aggressively and with a clear strategy to patients who present with severe obesity.[1]

Much more would be expected of GPs in 2017, I believe, than was the case in 1998.

Firstly, GPs could be exposed to lawsuits by obese patients who face fatal outcomes or complications as a result of their failure to receive timely assessment and referral.  That follows from basic principles well established in other cases.

Secondly, complaints against GPs might also be directed to the Health Care Complaints Commission, or to the Medical Council of NSW.  In such circumstances, there would be no need to prove that the complainant suffered harm or damage.

Thirdly, and admittedly in more unusual circumstances, health and social service professionals might also be liable for failure to comply with mandatory notification obligations.

Inquest into the death of “AA”

It’s worth considering all three possibilities against the facts that emerged in the Inquest into the Death of “AA”, a decision handed down on 26 September 2014.

On 29 September 2010, a 10 year-old boy called “AA” died quietly on the way to the John Hunter hospital.

He died from hypoxic brain injury following a cardio-respiratory arrest that was caused by his severe obesity, a condition that his parents had failed to address.

His death was largely unnoticed by the media.

It illustrates the wider epidemic of severe pediatric obesity, which is getting worse.

As the weight distribution of the pediatric population has shifted to the right, those on the extreme right (ie cases of severe pediatric obesity) risk falling off the edge.

The Coroner’s report details the interactions over the preceding two and a half years between AA and his school and the John Hunter hospital.

AA had severe obstructive sleep apnea and a history of missed medical appointments that the Coroner found amounted to medical neglect.

AA’s sister and his parents didn’t realize how critical the situation was because AA was frequently drowsy as a result of obstructive sleep apnea (para 237).

The Coroner found that Child Protection Intervention was necessary for AA’s medical condition to be addressed, because his parents were unable to help him.

Obesity and child protection

In a paper published in the Medical Journal of Australia in 2009, Shirley Alexander, Louise Bauer, Bernadette Tobin and I argued that in appropriate circumstances, failure to notify child protection services when parents of a grossly obese child are unable or unwilling to ensure he or she receives adequate support to moderate food intake and improve diet may constitute a breach of mandatory reporting provisions.

A child is at risk of significant harm if the child’s parents or caregivers are “unable or unwilling” for the child to receive “necessary medical care” (Children and Young Persons Care and Protection Act 1998 (NSW) s 23(b)(1)).

Broader determinants

Actions like referring a morbidly obese child to child protection services illustrate individual-specific solutions to a problem that has wider, societal causes.

A smarter, longer-term solution would be to moderate the influences that have contributed to children having the life-threatening disease of severe obesity.

In July 2016, the NSW government set itself a target of reducing overweight and obesity rates in children by 5% over 10 years: see NSW Strategic Plan for Children and Young People.

Reaching this target will require a basket of actions and will inevitably include the need to improve the food environment.

 

GPs duty of care and specialist referral

It has long been clear that doctors can breach their duty of care by failing to refer a patient for further investigation and management by specialists.  For example, in the missed cancer diagnosis case of O’Shea v Sullivan (1994) Aust Torts Reports 81-271, the court referred to the “golden rule” that “abnormal bleeding is due to cancer until proven otherwise”.  In PD v Harvey [2003] NSWSC 487, Cripps AJ found that the failure of GPs not to follow up a patient with HIV to ensure he kept an appointment they made for him at the Royal Prince Alfred Immunology Clinic was also a failure of reasonable care (para 70).  The patient in question went on to deceive (and infect) his sexual partner, who believed he was HIV negative.

[1] See Sally Gleeson, “Almario v Varipatis – A Weight Issue for General Practitioners”, Precedent (Sydney, N.S.W.), No. 121, Mar/Apr 2014: 48-50.

The ten secrets to surviving Law School REVEALED

 

one-does-not-simply-one-does-not-simply-stroll-through-law-school

OK, that title was complete clickbait. And usually this is a blog about health law. But we run a Master of Health Law program, and with second semester now upon us (welcome back, students), I thought I’d try something different.

The first year of Law School is tough. I didn’t enjoy it very much and I spent a lot of time flailing around, not entirely sure what I was doing.

I feel like I have a slightly better idea now that I’ve completed two undergraduate degrees and a PhD, and started working as a lecturer.

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Me, but not really.

So, having lived to tell the tale, here are my top ten tips for surviving law school.

  1. Come to class

I get it. All the lectures are recorded these days, so why bother getting out of your pajamas and coming to class? First, research shows that attending lectures can improve students’ academic performance. Second (and just as important), university can be a lonely place. Lectures are a reason to get out of bed, put on real clothes, and interact with other human beings. Who knows? You may even make a new friend. Lectures give your day a sense of structure, and they could even help us learn to listen without checking Facebook or doing a spot of online shopping.

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  1. Read the cases

Every semester I get this question:

Do I really need to read the cases?

The answer is yes. Emphatically, and unequivocally.

Along with statutes, cases are our source of law – not your lecturer, and not the textbook. Lecturers may explain the principle deriving from a case, but if you don’t know the facts or the reasoning behind the decision, how will you know if that principle can be applied to the facts in a problem question? Further down the track, when you’re a practicing lawyer, your client’s case may turn on the meaning of the word “reasonable.” And he or she will expect you to have read and understood all of the relevant cases on what “reasonable” means. There’s a lot of reading, I know, but cases become easier to read with practice, and your writing will improve as your reading does.

Judgments are the foundation of our discipline and our practice, and it makes me feel like this when students seem to think that reading cases isn’t necessary.

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  1. Learn how to learn

Law School’s simple, right? Come to class, read cases, take notes, done.

Not so much.

You need to learn a number of new skills along with cramming your head full of content. These include: writing a concise case summary, learning how to answer a problem question, and conveying information effectively in oral and written form. It took me a long time to learn that just taking screeds of notes was not the path to effective study. Learn from my mistakes and think critically about what you’re doing. The Law School has a number of resources for learning the skills required to be a successful law student, and a book like this one may also help.

  1. Get to know how special consideration and appeal processes work – right now

The University of Sydney has a central process for dealing with (most) special consideration requests, and for disability services. It’s a good idea to know about these services before you need to use them. Don’t be the person panicking on the day of the exam because you’re sick and can’t sit the exam, and don’t know what to do next. The same goes for appealing your marks. Hopefully you won’t need to use these processes, but it’s good to have at least a passing familiarity with how they work, just in case you do.

  1. Get help when you need it

There are often a lot of things happening in your life during your time at university: break-ups, moving out of home, an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet that really was too good to be true.  It may feel like there’s no one there to help if you if you’re struggling. But the University has a range of services, including counselling, and the Law School offers various forms of support. Please talk to your tutor or lecturer if you have issues that are affecting your study. They may not be able to solve every problem, but they can offer strategies for catching up on work, for example. There is help available if you reach out, and it’s better to do so sooner rather than later when everything’s falling apart.

  1. Check your email

You’ve emailed me (your lecturer) about an important, life-changing event. I’ve emailed you back. You don’t check your email for a week. There’s not much I can do in the meantime, and it’s frustrating. Check your university email regularly. If you don’t think you’ll remember to do it, set up a redirect so it goes to another account that you do check on a regular basis.

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  1. Manage stress

One thing that I found invaluable during my time as a student (and in life more generally), is learning techniques for managing stress. This could mean mindfulness, exercise, catching up with friends – whatever works for you, so long as it’s sustainable and beneficial in the long run. Sitting exams and submitting assignments are stressful, and we’ve got to learn how to deal. Remember that prevention is better than cure, and regularly engaging in activities like exercise may help to avoid a death spiral of depression and anxiety.

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#blessed.
  1. Get involved

It’s often difficult for students to find time for anything but study or work. But one thing I sincerely regret not doing when I was an undergraduate is participating in the life of my faulty more. This could be performing in the Law Revue, it could be mooting, it could be only the occasional social event. I understand that students may feel like they don’t fit in, or that those sorts of things are not for them. But I can tell you from talking to my students that it’s not uncommon to feel that way. Maybe this is something faculties need to think about. But please don’t let feelings of not-fitting-in (or just plain shyness) stop you from attending events.

  1. Make the most of your degree

There’s a lot of talk about how competitive it is to get a job in law these days, particularly with the increasing number of graduates coming out of law schools. Students don’t need any more pressure to hustle to get a good job when they finish their degree. But you will get out of university what you put in. This means using your time at university to look for opportunities that will help you move towards the career you want to be in when you graduate. I’m not necessarily talking about creating a start-up to help you get a job in a law firm. I put in an application for an obscure summer scholarship that was advertised on a notice board, and that move changed the trajectory of my whole career. There are a variety of opportunities available at University, and it’s important to be proactive in searching out the ones that suit you best.

  1. Have… fun (?)

This blog post could end with a picture of happy smiling students strolling across the law school lawn, and with me saying something like, “Enjoy yourself! University is the best experience of your life, blah blah.” But law school is often demanding, and it’s not necessarily a rewarding experience being broke and living in a share house with people who may or may not have fleas.

So my final suggestion is not “have fun,” but “persist.” You will not like every course. In some, making it through the end of the lecture may be a triumph, and in those courses, survival may be the name of the game.

But you will find courses that you enjoy, and moments where you feel like you have conquered the subject. This is what makes it all worthwhile, as well as finally getting your degree at the end. And what makes it worth it for me is seeing my students getting to graduation, and then moving on to even greater things. Good luck.

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I see you Australian Law Memes

Ps. University is a great time to experiment with your style, and if you feel like dying your hair blue, then go for it. It becomes harder to do things like that once you have a serious job, like being a law lecturer. Just don’t do it right before your clerkship interview.

 

Excluding bottled water, only 1.3% of food and beverage advertising across the Sydney train network is consistent with a healthy diet

New research from the Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise & Eating Disorders at the University of Sydney, and Sydney Law School, has investigated the quality of nutrition of food and beverage advertising on every station of Sydney’s metropolitan train network.

Judged by revenues, outdoor advertising of food, on billboards and other advertising spaces, is on the rise.

Sydney Trains generated over $12 million in advertising revenue in the 2013-14 financial year, and this was expected to increase to at least $100 million over the subsequent 5 years.

A research team, led by Emma Sainsbury, collected data in February (summer) and July (winter) of 2016, photographing a total of 6931 advertisements across the 178 stations in the network.

Each advertisement was coded as core (a healthy food or beverage recommended for daily consumption), or discretionary (high fat, sugar and/or salty food not recommended for daily consumption), based on the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating.

The results tell you what you probably already know: Sydney train stations are a great place to advertise junk food and beverages.

Just over a quarter of total advertisements (1915/6931, or 27.6%) promoted food and beverages.

Of the food and beverage advertisements, 84.3% were for discretionary foods/beverages, 8% were for core foods/beverages, and the remainder (7.6%) were miscellaneous advertisements, mostly brand-only advertisements that did not mention specific products.

Significantly, the core foods/beverages category consisted mostly of bottled water vending machines (74.4%), and billboard advertisements for bottled water (11%).  When advertisements for bottled water were excluded, only 1.3% of food and beverage advertising on the Sydney train network was for core foods.

The most commonly advertised discretionary products were potato chips (25%), sugar-sweetened beverages (23%, mostly flavoured milks and soft drinks), and intense or artificially-sweetened beverages (18.7%).

Despite food advertisements comprising just over a quarter of all advertisements, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo (which includes PepsiCo beverages and The Smith’s Snackfood Company) were the largest advertisers overall, contributing 10.9% and 6.5% of total advertising across the network.

Advertisements for alcohol made up over 6% of food and beverage advertising, and about 2% of total advertising.

There is obviously a total disconnect between foods and beverages advertised on Sydney trains and the kinds of foods and drinks that make up a healthy diet.

What do advertisers have against healthy food and beverages, I wonder?

A large number of self-regulatory initiatives ostensibly regulate food and beverage advertising in Australia.

However, these have failed to achieve a healthy food advertising environment, probably by design.

The results of this study support the case for government to pressure industry to shift the mix of food and beverage advertising towards products that are more consistent with a healthy diet.

The paper reviews some of the regulatory approaches that might be used, from outright bans, to interim and longer-term targets for reductions in the overall volume of unhealthy food advertising, based on a credible nutrient profiling system that evaluates the quality of nutrition of the product.

Restrictions on the volume of particular kinds of advertising, as a percentage of total advertising, do exist in other jurisdictions.

In Ireland, for example, the General Commercial Communications Code limits the volume of television advertising of foods high in fat, salt or sugar, to a maximum of 25% of sold advertising time across the broadcast day (para 16.10).

However, much of the impetus for constraints on unhealthy food advertising arises from the belief that children are particularly vulnerable and deserve to be protected.  Unlike, say, television programs that are made specifically for children, the train network is used by substantial numbers of both adults and children.

Another approach could be to significantly increase the proportion of train station advertising allocated to the promotion of healthy, core foods and beverages, perhaps through higher pricing strategies for advertising of junk foods and sugary drinks.

The food, beverage and advertising industries ought to be taking the lead here, but how likely is that?!

The prevailing ideology, shared by the food and beverage industries, their allies and lobbies, is that you get the health you deserve.

If you can beat temptation and eat a healthy diet, you deserve to be healthy.

But if you eat a poor diet, if you routinely consume the diet that is overwhelmingly advertised, then you get what’s coming to you.

That’s personal responsibility.

It’s great for business (there’s great margins on nutritionally poor foods), but not great for the health budget, nor for individuals and families.

Maybe that’s why the food and beverage industry needs round-the-clock lobbyists in Canberra to explain to politicians and the rest of us how the world works.

Because otherwise someone might start asking crazy questions…like…Why shouldn’t the mix of advertising across the Sydney train netework be better aligned with a healthy diet?

The paper can be downloaded free of charge here.

Queensland’s Healthy Futures Commission

Health promotion in Queensland could receive a turbo-boost if the Healthy Futures Commission Queensland Bill 2017 is passed.

This Bill illustrates a sometimes neglected aspect of public health law: use of law to build new institutions, to encourage partnerships, and to create a clear legislative mandate to address health challenges.

The Healthy Futures Commission was an election commitment by the Palaszczuk Labor Government.

It is intended to help achieve two measures of success set out in Queensland Health’s 10 year vision and strategy.  These are to:

  • Reduce childhood obesity by 10%; and
  • Increase levels of physical activity by 20% (p 15/28).

The Bill would establish the Healthy Futures Commission Queensland, a portfolio agency within the Health Ministry.

Its purpose is to “support the capacity of children and families to adopt a healthy lifestyle”, and contribute to the reduction of health inequalities for children and families (s 3).

The functions of the Committee include: advocating for the social conditions and environments necessary to support healthier lifestyles and reduce health inequalities, and developing partnerships (s 9).

The Commission has power to make grants on matters relating to its functions, to industry or community organisations, universities, local governments, and business entities.  The source of funding for these grants would be the Healthy Futures Queensland fund established by the Bill (s 41), which is also the funding source for the Commission’s own costs and expenses.

Queensland’s Minister for Health and Ambulance Services, Cameron Dick, has stated the Commission will have a budget of $20 million over three years.

The Bill requires that at least 55% of total funding shall be paid out as grants (s 41(4)).  This reflects the importance of the Commission’s grants function, and appears to be intended to ensure that the majority of funds are expended on “real world” interventions and projects addressing healthier eating and physical activity.  This funding requirement also creates a natural check on the size of the Commission itself.

The Commission must prepare an annual project funding plan each year for approval by the Board and the Minister (s 42).

In performing its functions, the Commission is required to take into account the social determinants of health, as understood in the Rio Political Declaration on Social Determinants of Health, as well as the needs of vulnerable groups experiencing health inequity including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

The Commission is not entirely independent of politics and must comply with any direction given by the Health Minister about the performance of the Commission’s functions (s 10).  The Minister may request reports from the Commission on relevant matters but may not give directions about the content of any such report (s 11).

Queensland LNP Senator Barry O’Sullivan has called for the Qld Health Minister to instruct the Commission never to recommend a sugar tax.

According to Senator O’Sullivan, the Commission “should focus on promoting personal responsibility to reduce obesity.”

Readers of this blog will already have picked up on the message that the National Party doesn’t like sugary drinks taxes.

However, outside of Australia, as a recent paper by Sarah Roach and Lawrence Gostin points out, sugary drinks taxes are gaining momentum, encouraging reductions in consumption of sugary drinks, raising revenues for government, educating consumers and at least in the UK, driving reformulation.

Queensland’s Healthy Futures Commission would be governed by a 6-member Board appointed by the Governor in Council on the recommendation of the Minister.  Board members must have qualifications or experience in business, law, leading partnerships, or assessing the impact of social conditions on health equity.  Board members are appointed to 4 year terms (and may be re-appointed) (s 16).

The Board is empowered to establish committees, whose membership could include appropriate external experts, to assist it to perform its functions (s 29).

Upcoming events: Engaging with Advocates

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On Friday the 28th of July, Sydney Health Law is hosting Engaging with Advocates, along with the Food Governance Node and the Healthy Food Systems Node at the Charles Perkins Centre.

This event aims to connect early career researchers with leading civil society advocates in order to foster collaboration and increase the impact of research. Representatives of organizations working on the sustainability of food systems, promoting healthier diets, and championing consumer rights will share personal experiences of using research in their efforts to improve policy, and offer insights for academics looking to strengthen the practical relevance of their research.

This event will feature keynote presentations by:

  • CHOICE
  • The Live Lighter Campaign (Heart Foundation Western Australia); and
  • Sustain: The Australian Food Network

The keynote presentations will be followed by a session where participants workshop “live” policy issues, and the event will conclude with networking drinks.

While the event is targeted at early-career researchers, academics at every level are welcome to attend, as are members of civil society and government organisations, and others who are interested. Further information can be found at this link.

We hope to see you there!

Enabling the angels of death?

Draft voluntary euthanasia legislation, called the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2017 (NSW) has been released for public comment.

Drafted by a cross-Parliamentary working group, it may be the closest contender yet for the legalisation of assistance-in-dying for people living in NSW who are suffering from a terminal disease.

A short summary of the Bill appears further below.

Australians have not had lawful access to assisted dying since 1997, when the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997 (Cth) [introduced as a private member’s Bill by Kevin Andrews MP, with the assistance of the Howard government] overturned the Northern Territory’s brief, 8 month experiment with euthanasia – the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1995.

Relying on the plenary legislative power of the Commonwealth to make laws for the Territories, the Euthanasia Laws Act withdrew from the NT and ACT the power to make laws with respect to assisted dying.  The Act was a victory for conservative political forces in Australia.

Since that time, despite polls suggesting that most Australians favour legalising a right for those suffering a terminal illness to die with medical assistance, all the voluntary euthanasia Bills introduced into State Parliaments have failed.

There are various explanations for this.

The legalisation of assisted dying may suffer from the reality that although a majority of the population support it, those who oppose it are deeply committed opponents for whom the issue is a vote-changer.  This makes the passage of laws that might have majority support a net vote loser.

Another explanation is that Australians, or at least their elected representatives, are far less progressive than right-to-die advocates would like to believe.

Will the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2017 give legal cover to those “angels of death” who up to now have provided their assistance informally, in the “euthanasia underground”?

The Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2017 (NSW)

The Bill would authorise a 25 year-old, ordinarily present in NSW, to request their primary medical practitioner for assistance to end their life in circumstances where that person (the patient) has been informed by their primary medical practitioner that the patient is suffering from a terminal illness, and where the patient is experiencing severe pain, suffering or physical incapacity that is unacceptable to the patient (cl 4).

The request for assistance must be in writing (see below), and the patient may rescind their request at any time (cl 5).

Assistance may take the form of prescribing and preparing a (lethal) substance for self-administration by the patient, or may involve the direct administration of the substance to the patient when the patient is physically incapable of self-administering it (cl 3).

A medical practitioner may only provide assistance with substances identified in the Regulations as “authorised substances”, presumably because of their reliable euthanatic properties (cl 10).

The patient’s primary medical practitioner is not obliged to provide assistance (cl 6), and the patient may, in writing or by means of an audio-visual record, nominate a third party, who must be at least 18 years old, to provide the assistance (cl 7).

A number of requirements must be met before the assistance can be provided.

The patient must be examined by their primary medical practitioner, and by an independent, secondary medical practitioner who must be registered “in a specialty of the medical profession that is relevant to the patient’s diagnosis or treatment of the terminal illness from which the patient is suffering” (cl 14(3)(a)).  The specialist must not be “closely associated” with the primary medical practitioner, ie the former must not be a close relative, employee, or member of the same medical practice as the latter (cl 14(3)(b)).  In addition, the specialist must not be a close relative of the patient (cl 14(3)(c)).

Conflict of interest provisions also apply. A person (that is, any person) must not promise any financial benefit to the primary medical practitioner, and the primary medical practitioner must not accept any financial benefit in return for providing assistance to the patient, other than reasonable payment for medical services (cl 12).

It seems difficult for the primary medical practitioner to be a close relative of the patient, or the former would fail the conflict of interest provisions by virtue of receiving a financial benefit through inheritance (cl 11(a)).

The patient’s request for assistance must be confirmed by the patient after the primary medical practitioner has examined the patient and indicated the likely course of the patient’s illness, and treatment options, including palliative care, counselling and psychiatric support (cl 15).

Next, the patient must be examined by an independent psychiatrist or psychologist who must provide a written report to the primary medical practitioner and specialist which confirms that the patient is of sound mind and has made a free and voluntary decision (cl 16).

The primary medical practitioner must not provide assistance unless they have examined the patient and formed the medical opinion that the patient is suffering from a “terminal illness” (ie an illness that in reasonable medical judgment will cause death within 12 months) that is causing “severe pain, suffering or physical incapacity to an extent unacceptable to the patient” (cl 17).  The primary medical practitioner must also believe that there is no cure, and that the only treatment reasonably available to the patient is the relief of pain and suffering (ie palliative care).  The primary medical practitioner must also believe that the patient has considered the impact of the assisted death on the patient’s spouse or de-facto partner or family.  The specialist must also confirm these assessments in a written statement provided to the primary medical practitioner (cl 17).

A patient who requests assistance in dying must also fill out a request certificate.  The Bill envisages an initial request made by the patient, followed by a period of not less than 7 days, before the patient signs the request certificate (c. 18).

If the patient is physically unable to sign the certificate, the certificate may take the form of an audio-visual record of the patient reading the patient’s declaration in the certificate; however, the primary medical practitioner must be present during the signing and must also sign a declaration on the request certificate.  The specialist must also sign the certificate (cl 18).

A cooling off period applies after the patient requests assistance: this disentitles the primary medical practitioner from providing assistance for at least 48 hours after the request certificate was completed (cl 8).

The Bill also requires an interpreter to become involved if the patient is unable to communicate fluently, in any language, with the two medical practitioners and the psychiatrist or psychologist (cl 19).

The Bill provides a mechanism for close relatives to apply to the Supreme Court and for the Court to invalidate the request certificate if statutory requirements are not met.  Grounds for invalidating the certificate include a finding that the patient was not suffering from a terminal illness, or was not of sound mind at the time they made the initial request for assistance and signed the request certificate.  The Court may also inquire into whether or not the patient’s decision was made freely and voluntarily after due consideration, and whether or not the patient’s capacity was adversely affected by his or her state of mind (cl 21).

The Supreme Court’s jurisdiction, which includes its parens patriae jurisdiction, is not affected by the Bill (cl 23).

The Bill gives health care providers and any other person a right not to participate in providing the patient with assistance to end their life (cl 24).  Unlike Victoria’s abortion legislation, a medical practitioner or other person with a conscientious objection to assisted dying is not obliged to refer a patient to a medical practitioner whom they know has no such scruples, although they are required to transfer a copy of the patient’s medical records to a new medical practitioner (cl 24).

A “protected person” is not criminally or civilly liable (this includes liability in any disciplinary proceedings) for actions taken in good faith to participate in the provision of assistance to die in accordance with the Act.  This includes administering a lethal substance, selling or preparing such a substance, and being present when the assistance is given (cl 25).  A protected person means the primary medical practitioner or specialist, the psychiatrist or independent psychologist, a health care provider or nominee (cl 25).

The Bill could further confirm this protection by extending it to the person who fills a prescription or prepares or compounds the substance that is intended to be used to assist the patient to die.  The person who provides the substance may have no way of knowing whether the requirements of the Act have, in fact, been fulfilled.  The Bill is not clear about where the drugs used in the assisted dying procedure will be sourced.

Clause 25 does not refer specifically to administration or preparation of an “authorised” substance, although elsewhere the Bill requires only authorised substances to be used (cl 10).  Immunity does not extend to dealings with “unused substance” except for the purposes of destruction (cl 25(5)).

A well-worn debate?

Twenty years ago, moral opposition to the Northern Territory’s euthanasia legislation was spear-headed by the Catholic and Anglican churches, whose record on human rights has since been subjected to scrutiny by the  Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Despite this, the Bill is unlikely to escape the usual criticisms that are made of assisted dying legislation.  These include the criticism that vulnerable patients will simply engage in doctor shopping until they find medical practitioners willing to give them what they want.

Opponents argue that it would be better to improve the funding and technical capability of palliative care services, rather than authorising cheap alternatives to such care.

Advocates for assisted dying point out that if palliative care could successfully reduce suffering to levels acceptable to patients, without sedating them into permanent unconsciousness, there would be no continuing drive for euthanasia.

Opponents argue that legislation to deliver a right to die with assistance, while simultaneously protecting vulnerable people from potential abuse, is difficult if not impossible to achieve.

Opponents also worry about the slippery slope, an idea summarised by Robert Manne at the height of debate about the Northern Territory’s legislation:

For anyone who understands social processes the expansion of the circle of those who can be killed will come as no surprise. For once we agree to the principle of doctors performing voluntary euthanasia by what effort of societal will, on what rock of ethical principle, can we resist its extension to ever new categories of sufferers?  There is no such will: no such fixed and reliable principle…The slippery slope…involves a subtle transformation of ethical sensibility.  Over time we become blind to how we once thought [Robert Manne, “Life and death on the slippery slope” Quadrant, Vol 39, issue 7-8, July/Aug 1995, pp 2-3].

The debate goes round and round.

 

The fate of the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill remains hard to predict.  Ultimately, however, the decision will lie with legislators – human beings voting on the basis of their conscience and sense of what is right and decent.  It is not a poll.

 

Are you interested in studying health law?  Sydney Law School’s Graduate Diploma in Health Law, and Master of Health Law are open to both lawyers and non-lawyers.

Professor Cameron Stewart teaches “Death Law” within the Master of Health Law program.

Professor Roger Magnusson wrote Angels of Death: Exploring the Euthanasia Underground, published by Melbourne University Press in 2002.

Promoting health goals in a self-regulating industry

Earlier this year I published an article on self-regulation of food marketing to children in Australia. I focused on two voluntary codes developed by the Australian food industry to respond to concerns about children’s exposure to junk food advertising, and how it might affect their eating habits. My article pointed out the many loopholes in food industry self-regulation, mirroring other concerns expressed about regulation of junk food marketing to children, and described how the Australian regulatory regime might be strengthened.

Jane Komsky recently published a blog post on my paper on The Regulatory Review, the blog of the Penn Program on Regulation. We republish Jane’s post below, with the kind permission of The Review.

Parliament House in Canberra, Australia

Tony the Tiger. Ronald McDonald. Cap’n Crunch. What do these three characters have in common?

They are all memorable characters that children love—which is why the Australian food industry does not hesitate to use them to promote foods widely thought to be unhealthy.

According to Professor Belinda Reeve of Sydney Law School, food marketing in Australia has contributed significantly to the country’s increased rate of childhood obesity. Reeve argues that childhood obesity often leads to low self-esteem, bullying, and major health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease. Thus, limiting children’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing could help lower the rate and risk of the condition, says Reeve.

In response to this growing concern about the effects of unhealthy food marketing to children, the World Health Organization (WHO) encourages countries to adopt effective regulatory measures. While the WHO offers guidance for the design and implementation of regulatory measures, the Australian regulatory regime prefers to allow the food industry to regulate itself. For example, the food industry developed “voluntary pledges” where companies agreed to advertise only healthier products to children, restrict their use of product placement, and report annually on their compliance.

Although self-regulation of food marketing can be effective, Reeve argues that the self-regulation route does not typically work in industries that have economic motives not to comply. She posits that the food industry in Australia continues to promote its own private interests at the expense of public health goals. Ideally, according to Reeve, the industry should be put on “notice” that unless the industry players actively advance public health goals, the government regulators will intervene with more oversight and regulations over the industry, a so-called responsive regulatory approach.

The Australian food industry, through its voluntary self-regulation program, adopted only very narrow regulations, which focus strictly on food advertisements specifically directed at young children, says Reeve. Reeve explains that food companies avoid regulation by creating advertisements “officially” targeting adults and families, instead of young children, while simultaneously using animated characters that children find appealing. Reeve urges a “significant expansion” to the existing rules to close off these loopholes.

In addition to permitting child-friendly advertising, the current Australian advertising system fails to limit unhealthy food advertisements, Reeve argues. The WHO explains that any exposure to unhealthy food marketing influences children, who, in turn, influence their parents to buy these meals for consumption, even when the advertisement is officially targeted for other audiences. The WHO suggests the regulation will be more effective if the main goal aims to reduce children’s overall exposure to unhealthy food marketing, not just reducing the marketing that targets children.

Reeve explains that to enforce the Australian food marketing industry’s voluntary self-regulation program effectively there must be better oversight over the industry as a whole. Reeve first suggests introducing an administrative committee with representatives from government agencies, as well as other external and internal stakeholders to balance private and public interests. This committee would be responsible for collecting and analyzing data about the nutritional quality of products marketed to children and the industry’s level of compliance. The committee would then track improvement from companies’ mandatory reporting requirements.

Reeve writes that this committee would implement an enforcement mechanism—such as sanctions—if companies were to breach their responsibilities. Sanctions provide a strong motivation for compliance through potential reputational and financial consequences for companies. Similarly, the committee would encourage compliance through a wide range of incentives.

If the committee finds that the self-regulation program does not achieve high levels of compliance, Reeve suggests moving to a co-regulatory system. A co-regulatory system would allow the government to get more involved in regulation by creating legislative infrastructure requiring all food industry companies to follow regulations and preapproved goals. The food marketing industry would still set its own standards, but the responsibility for monitoring and enforcing these standards would be transferred to a government agency, thereby putting greater pressure on companies to comply.

If the industry fails to make significant progress under the co-regulatory system, Reeve suggests that government adopt new statutory measures altogether. Reeve promotes a prohibition on unhealthy food marketing on television until late at night, restricting marketing on media platforms with large child audiences, and banning unhealthy food marketing in and around sites where large groups of children gather. Reeve even suggests prohibiting the use of animated characters and celebrities to promote unhealthy foods.

Once the government implements these statutory measures, a government agency would monitor and enforce the rules. In some cases, the government could even prosecute companies that “engaged in serious forms of noncompliance.” The agency would regularly analyze and write reports about the progress of reducing children’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing.

Reeve anticipates that this type of government intervention would be viewed as intrusive and would face industry resistance. The industry’s response might suggest that this type of intervention is not practical. But, Reeve believes the threat of this intrusive government intervention will motivate the industry to comply with the softer regulations that should be put in place first. Such a threat will also provide the government with greater bargaining power for implementing more effective voluntary and co-regulatory policies.

According to Reeve, the Australian food marketing industry has a real opportunity to upend the rate of childhood obesity, but only if the industry puts the public’s health interests before its own private interests.