Half of UK doctors are personally supportive of a law change on assisted dying, but geriatric medicine and palliative care tended to be generally more opposed, according to the results of a BMA survey.

Nearly 29,000 members of the BMA responded to the survey, which is the largest ever survey of medical opinion, and 40% said they believed the BMA's position should be one of support.

The survey was conducted in February this year to help inform future policy debates. It was not a policy-forming exercise and the BMA’s policy remains opposed to assisted dying in all its forms. A vote will now be held at the next BMA’s annual representative meeting in June 2021.

Numerous studies have been published into the views of both clinicians and the public, including the BMA’s major research project carried out in 2015, into the views of members and the public concerning their experiences and perceptions of end-of-life care and physician-assisted dying.

John Chisholm, chair of the BMA medical ethics committee, said:  "As these results are designed to inform, and not set, BMA policy, it is not for me to provide an interpretation of what they mean or what should happen next. They do, however, provide some interesting trends, which are clearly set out in the full results.

"For example, when all of the questions were assessed, doctors in some specialties such as anaesthetics, emergency medicine, intensive care and obstetrics & gynaecology tended to be generally more supportive, whereas those in specialties including clinical oncology, general practice, geriatric medicine and palliative care tended to be generally more opposed.

"There are also some differences in opinion geographically, across branches of practice and between those with and without a licence to practise in the UK."

BMA survey results on assisted dying

On the issue of prescribing drugs for self-administration by eligible patients, 40% of those who responded believe the BMA’s position should be one of support; 21% believe it should be neutral; 33% believe it should be opposed; and 6% were undecided. When asked for their personal view, 50% were supportive, 39% opposed and 11% undecided. As for their ‘willingness to actively participate in any way in the process’, 36% said yes, they would be, 45% said no and 19% were undecided.

There were differences in the answers when it comes to opinion on doctors administering drugs to end the life of an eligible patient, where 30% believe the BMA’s position should be supportive; 23% believe it should be neutral; 40% believe it should be opposed, and 7% were undecided. When asked for their personal view, 37% were supportive, 46% opposed and 17% undecided. And finally, on their willingness to actively participate, 26% said yes to being willing to actively participate in some way in the process, 54% said no and 20% were undecided.

Dr Jacky Davis, Chair of Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying, said:“We now know what we’ve suspected for many years that there is a wide range of views amongst doctors and support for law change is growing year by year. Doctors want to listen to their patients and support them throughout their lives and, for some dying people, that will include a need for choice and control at the end of life. For too long the medical establishment has opposed assisted dying without listening to the opinions of the profession as a whole.

“The BMA should be commended for conducting a very thorough and fair survey and for securing a huge turnout of members. It will no doubt help to inform discussions on the BMA’s official position at the next Annual Representative Meeting. It is to be hoped that the BMA will listen to its members and take a more constructive position on assisted dying. This will help ensure we get a new law that works for doctors, works for dying people, and works for society as a whole.”