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  • Professor Ben White and Professor Lindy Willmott, co-directors of QUT's new Health Law Research Centre

New Health Law Centre tackles matters of life and death

22 October 2012

Researchers at QUT's newly established Health Law Research Centre are leading research to understand why futile treatment is, at times, provided to dying patients.

Queensland health minister Lawrence Springborg and former High Court judge Michael Kirby will speak at the opening of the Centre, which is home to the largest group of health law academics in Australia, this Thursday, October 25.

Centre co-director Professor Ben White said the Centre focuses on the law regarding life and death issues including palliative care, advance directives, withholding and withdrawing life-sustaining treatment, and surrogacy, abortion and artificial reproductive technology as well as the regulation and governance of health care.

He and Centre co-director Professor Lindy Willmott are addressing the issue of futile treatment which can harm patients who receive intrusive medical treatment at the end of life instead of the palliative care needed for a 'good death'.

Professor Willmott said administering treatment to those coming to the end of their life through either diagnosed illnesses or sudden accidents was a complex issue.

She said providing futile treatment could also have adverse effects on the health professionals involved with giving such treatment.

She also said while limited research had been conducted in the US and Canada and anecdotal evidence collected in Australia, this would be the first comprehensive study to determine the size of the issue and the best ways of dealing with it.

"We know patients near their deaths are sometimes provided with treatment that may not be in their best interests, and that simply delays the dying process," she said.

Professor White said such treatment appeared to be performed for a range of reasons including doctors' concern about potential legal liability of not providing treatment, especially when family members insisted that it be done.

"When a loved one is dying, a range of complex family issues can come into play, for example with family members who may not have seen the patient for a long time and are unprepared for them to die," he said.

"The delivery of care appears also to be influenced by doctors' perceptions of patient death as a failure, uncertainty about what patients who are now unable to communicate would have wanted, and communication issues between specialists when a patient is being treated for a range of illnesses."

He said the delivery of futile medical treatment to the dying would also be looked at from an economic point of view to gauge how often it occurred and the cost of providing the treatment.

The three-year study, 'Futile treatment at the end of life: legal, policy, sociological and economic perspectives' has received $260,000 from the Australian Research Council and is supported by a research partnership with the Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital.

Professor White said this research aimed to make a difference for patients and their families as well as for health professionals.

"The Health Law Research Centre is tackling issues such as these with a group of experienced health law academics and a strong cohort of higher degree research students.

"Our research aims to improve the legal landscape for patients and their families, health professionals, government departments and the wider community."

The Health Law Research Centre launch will be held in the Gardens Theatre Foyer on QUT Gardens Point campus at 5pm for 5.30pm on Thursday, 25 October.

Related articles:

Nielsen case sets benchmark in Queensland criminal law
Law study to improve doctors' end-of-life decisions

Media contact: Niki Widdowson, 3138 2999 or n.widdowson@qut.edu.au.