12-month review of Voluntary Assisted Dying Act

Thursday 11 February, 2021

The independent Voluntary Assisted Dying Review Board released its third report in August 2020, which details activity from June 2019 – when the law came into effect – and 30 June 2020.

It found that almost four out of five of the 124 people who used the prescribed voluntary assisted dying medication had terminal cancer.

Danielle Spence, Cancer Council Victoria’s Head of Strategy and Support said it wasn’t surprising to learn that cancer had factored significantly in the review.

“As a leading cause of death in Victoria, cancer accounts for almost 11,000 deaths each year,” she said.

“A terminal diagnosis of cancer raises many concerns for patients and families. Through our 13 11 20 information and support line, we provide information about palliative care, emotional support and address practical concerns such as financial and legal issues for all Victorians.”

In addition, the Board report revealed:

  • high compliance with the Voluntary Assisted Dying Act 2017
  • people requesting voluntary assisted dying came from across Victoria with 62 per cent from a metropolitan area and 38 per cent in a regional or rural area.
  • 422 medical practitioners have registered for the mandatory voluntary assisted training to support requests to applications to access the scheme. Thirty-seven per cent of trained and registered medical practitioners are located in regional and rural Victoria and 63 per cent are in metropolitan area
  • the state-wide Voluntary Assisted Dying Care Navigator Service hosted at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne had been expanded to provide additional care navigators in regional Victoria. This was in response to feedback received in the first six months of the law being in force. Voluntary assisted dying care navigators provide information and support regarding voluntary assisted dying to the community, health practitioners and health services across Victoria. The service was set up to support the implementation of the voluntary assisted dying law.

Review recommendations

Ms Spence noted that the Board had raised concerns relating to challenges with telehealth consultations, particular for people living in rural and regional Victoria.

“The inability of medical practitioners to use telehealth to provide information to patients seeking access to voluntary assisted dying, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, has made attendance at face-to-face consultations difficult,” she said.

“This is due to potentially conflicting Commonwealth criminal laws that place medical practitioners at risk of criminal prosecution for discussing voluntary assisted dying via telephone, email, or telehealth.

“Cancer Council supports the Board’s call for the Commonwealth Government to reconsider making an exemption to the federal criminal law to allow Victorians, especially those in regional areas, to be able to access information about voluntary assisted dying over the phone or via teleconference.”

About the Act and Board

The Voluntary Assisted Dying Act 2017 allows Victorians at the end of life who are suffering in the late stages of advanced disease, and who meet strict eligibility criteria, to request access to voluntary assisted dying medication following the steps set out under the law.

The Board was set up to review and monitor voluntary assisted dying activities in Victoria to ensure that the law is followed. The Board reviews every case of voluntary assisted dying, collects information related to voluntary assisted dying and considers feedback to suggest system-wide quality and safety improvements.

By law, the Board is required to inform the community about how Victoria’s voluntary assisted dying laws are working by releasing regular reports. The law contains 68 safeguards, which are an essential part of any assisted dying legislation.

Support for Victorians at end of life

Cancer Council Victoria recognises there are differing personal and professional views on voluntary assisted dying and respects the right of people and organisations to hold such views.

Ms Spence said Cancer Council Victoria was available to provide information and support to all Victorians affected by cancer.

“We understand the topic can bring up difficult issues for many people in the community, including those who are affected by cancer,” she said.

“Some people may find issues relating to end-of-life care upsetting or confusing. We encourage anyone struggling with or wanting to find out more about end of life or voluntary assisted dying to seek information and support.”

Access to palliative care services

People wanting to explore alternatives to Voluntary Assisted Dying can contact Cancer Council Victoria to discuss the range of palliative care and end-of-life services available in Victoria.

Ms Spence said that palliative care services could help maintain comfort and quality of life throughout advanced cancer.

"We understand that people's access to quality palliative care can differ around the state and more needs to be done to ensure they can receive timely access to it,” she said.  

"If you feel strongly about this, we're urging people to share their experience with us to help inform the work we do."

Information and support

For more information about the Voluntary Assisted Dying Act 2017, visit Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) website, or ask a health practitioner (such as a general practitioner (GP), specialist doctor or nurse) for information. Voluntary assisted dying navigators can be contacted on (03) 8559 5823.

For cancer information and support, please contact Cancer Council on 13 11 20 to speak to an experienced cancer nurse, or visit facing end of life on our website. 

If you urgently need to talk to somebody because you are thinking about ending your life, call Lifeline free and confidential telephone counselling service on 13 11 14.

Palliative Care Victoria has practical support and for carers, see Palliative Care Australia's "I'm a carer".