The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown much of what we take for granted on its head. If recent reports are accurate we can potentially add to that list an individual’s right to control their own medical treatment as codified in the Health Care Consent Act (the “HCCA”).
There have been reports in the news recently about advanced planning currently underway about what would happen to the provision of health care if the worst case scenario for COVID-19 should occur and the hospitals are overwhelmed. Included amongst these reports are discussions that certain provisions of the HCCA may temporarily be suspended as part of a new triage system which would allow medical professionals to prioritize who received treatment.
Section 10 of the HCCA codifies that a health care practitioner shall not carry out any “treatment” for a patient unless the patient, or someone authorized on behalf of the patient, has consented to the treatment. The Supreme Court of Canada in Cuthbertson v. Rasouli, 2013 SCC 53, confirmed that “treatment” included the right not to be removed from life support without the patient’s consent even if health practitioners believed that keeping the patient on life support was not in the patient’s best interest. In coming to such a decision the Supreme Court of Canada notes:
“The patient’s autonomy interest — the right to decide what happens to one’s body and one’s life — has historically been viewed as trumping all other interests, including what physicians may think is in the patient’s best interests.”
The proposed changes to the HCCA would appear to be in direct contradiction to the spirit of this statement, allowing health care practitioners to potentially determine treatment without a patient’s consent based off of the triage criteria that may be developed. This “treatment” could potentially include whether to keep a patient on a lifesaving ventilator.
Hopefully the recent downward trend for COVID-19 cases holds and the discussion about any changes to the HCCA remains purely academic. If not however, and changes are made to the HCCA which could remove the requirement to obtain a patient’s consent before implementing “treatment”, you can be certain that litigation would follow. If this should occur it will be interesting to see how the court reconciles any changes to the HCCA with the historic jurisprudence, for as Rasouli notes beginning at paragraph 18 many of the rights that were codified in the HCCA previously existed under the common law, such that any changes to the HCCA alone may not necessarily take these rights away for a patient.
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COVID-19 has prompted innovation and legislative updates in terms of the way that lawyers can assist our clients with estate and incapacity planning. A new tool created by a professor at my alma matter, Queen’s University, has recently emerged to supplement formal planning by making it easier for clients to create end-of-life treatment plans and to discuss their end-of-life wishes with their families and health care teams.
The Plan Well Guide is a free online tool that allows users to formulate a “Dear Doctor letter”, which can be provided to a physician for discussion and can be reviewed with family members (or otherwise an attorney or guardian of personal care) to ensure an understanding of the person’s wishes during a health crisis. The website also includes other information and resources relevant to end-of-life decision making.
I went through the process of creating an end-of-life plan using this resource and found it to be user-friendly and straightforward. Some highlights of the Plan Well Guide include the following:
- There are prompts that ask whether a user has a Power of Attorney for Personal Care and Will in place, which may act as a prompt to obtain a lawyer’s assistance if necessary.
- The website illustrates the user’s wishes, with examples to confirm the accuracy of the information that the user inputs. Where the illustration is not consistent with the user’s actual wishes, the user can go back to modify priorities to better reflect their wishes.
- Quizzes to ensure proper understanding of terms such as ICU treatment, comfort care, and the nature of resuscitation.
- There are prompts for both outstanding questions or issues for discussion with a healthcare provider and explanations of wishes to provide those reading the document with a better understanding of the user’s rationale behind their wishes.
Especially in the midst of the current pandemic, tools like this that make end-of-life planning more accessible, while having the potential to expose deficiencies in incapacity or estate planning and encouraging an open discussion of wishes in terms of medical treatment, can be helpful resources.
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Other blog posts that may be of interest:
An Attorney for Personal Care and a Guardian of the Person is statutorily mandated under section 66(3) the Substitute Decisions Act, 1992 (the “SDA“) to make certain decisions in the incapable person’s best interests if the incapable person’s wishes and instructions are unknown or if it is impossible to act in accordance with those wishes and instructions.
A component of the best interests analysis, as set out in section 66(4), includes considering whether the guardian’s decision is likely to,
“i. improve the quality of the person’s life,
ii. prevent the quality of the person’s life from deteriorating, or
iii. reduce the extent to which, or the rate at which, the quality of the person’s life is likely to deteriorate.”
Given that improving the quality of a person’s life and preventing their quality of life from deteriorating are two sides of the same coin, there is exciting and heart-warming new technology which uses Google Street View to treat Alzheimer’s patients.
This new technology is a prototype called BikeAround. BikeAround is essentially a stationary bike that stimulates the experience of, literally, biking down memory lane for an Alzheimer’s patient. The patient is placed on a stationary bike which faces a projection of his/her familiar hometown streets from Google Street View. The experience is intended to prevent memory loss by bringing to mind locations that are associated with the patient’s memories. The simultaneous physical stimulation from the act of biking is also considered to be a crucial component of the benefits from this new technology.
Anne-Christine Hertz is the biomechanical engineer who developed BikeAround.
This video on Hertz’s research is not to be missed.
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Ian Hull and I recently blogged about informed consent in the context of Ontario’s Health Care Consent Act 1996. As discussed in that blog, contrary to widespread belief, there is no age of consent in Ontario. Instead, the principles of capacity (to consent to treatment) are applied, as per s. 4 (1) of the Act, i.e. does the person understand the information that is salient to the decision, and do they appreciate the reasonably foreseeable consequences of a decision or a lack of decision. In short, the concept of maturity is used as the yardstick, rather than chronological age. As a parent, this concept has intrigued me, so I decided to explore this issue further. In doing so, I discovered the journey of a captivating boy named Abraham Cherrix.
In 2005, at the age of 15, Abraham Cherrix was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. At the time of his diagnosis, Abraham was living with his parents and four younger siblings in rural Virginia. His first round of chemotherapy, as recommended by the doctors at the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters, rendered him feverish, nauseated and so weakened that Abraham’s father had to carry him from the car into the house. When doctors raised the subject of a second cycle of chemotherapy, at higher doses and to be supplemented with radiation, Abraham declined, and his parents echoed his refusal. In lieu of conventional chemo, Abraham and his parents wanted to pursue an alternative herbal treatment (which they had prospected on the internet) called the Hoxsey Method. Having been banned by the U.S. FDA 45 years earlier, and having been deemed by the American Medical Association to be quackery, the Cherrix family sought treatment with the Hoxsey Method at the Bio-Medical Center in Tijuana, Mexico.
By the summer of 2006, the Accomack County Department of Social Services had determined that Abraham was not receiving ‘appropriate life-saving care’. Abraham’s parents were charged with medical neglect and officials took joint custody over the teen and ordered him to report to the hospital for chemotherapy treatment. A last-minute stay was obtained by the family and they regained full custody of their son. A month later, Abraham’s parents were cleared of the charges of medical neglect, and a consent decree was reached under which Abraham was permitted to pursue the Hoxsey Method as long as he was appropriately monitored by a board-certified oncologist, and by the court, until he turned 18.
Abraham’s case sparked a nationwide controversy. No one questioned that Abraham’s disease was both serious and life-threatening. The flame to the kindling: statistics showed that the success rate in curing Hodgkin lymphoma after three rounds of chemo was nearly 90 percent. The key issue that arose from Abraham’s refusal to subject himself to a second round of chemotherapy was this: When is a minor able to make autonomous decisions about his or her own health care; to consent, or refuse to consent to health care treatment on their own behalf? Like most states, the age of majority in Virginia is 18. However, in response to the difficulties faced by the Cherrix family in their wish to pursue an alternative treatment, the Virginia legislature passed a bill on February 23, 2007 called “Abraham’s Law”. This law would allow minors older than 14 to refuse life-prolonging treatments with the agreement of their parents on the condition that such a decision (to refuse medical treatment) is made in good faith and in the child’s best interests.
Abraham is 22 years old now and living in the small town of Floyd, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. In January, he learned that the cancer had returned to his left lung.