HALIFAX – An increase in demand has prompted the Nova Scotia government to press the pause button for medical assistance in dying (MAID) referrals, at least temporarily.

The province’s clinical manager for MAID, Dr Gord Gubitz, said this week that Nova Scotia Health will suspend requests for medical assistance in dying by 30 days as the province faces a “significant backlog” caused by increased demand exacerbated by COVID-19 pressures on the health system.

So far in 2021, the references for MAID have already exceeded those of all of last year. In 2020, there were a total of 373 referrals; in September of this year, there were already 395 references.

“We know that recent legislative changes have made MAID an option for more people looking for it. We also know that awareness grows over time, ”Gubitz said in an emailed statement.

“On the other hand, as we receive more referrals than ever before, we are also struggling to find enough clinicians to perform assessments and procedures according to patient requests. “

In March, changes to Canada’s MAID law made referral easier by changing some of the eligibility criteria. With the changes, the law no longer requires that a person’s natural death be “reasonably foreseeable”.

The law still requires that people wishing to be referred be at least 18 years old, able to give their informed consent to receive MAID, suffer from a serious and incurable illness, disease or disability, excluding – until March 2023 – mental illnesses and are in an advanced state of irreversible decline in abilities.

The law also stipulates that the applicant must suffer “lasting and intolerable physical or psychological suffering which cannot be alleviated under conditions which the person considers acceptable”.

Since the passage of the original MAID law in 2016, Nova Scotia has recorded 1,465 referrals, increasing steadily each year from 36 in the first year to 395 so far in 2021.

Among these, MAID was performed in 667 cases.

In 329 cases, patients died before MAID procedures were adopted. Of these, 186 have completed their assessments but have not planned the procedure.

Gubitz, at the same time as he announced the suspension of referrals, appealed for training for doctors and nurse practitioners who may have the capacity to become involved in the MAID process. He also said Health Nova Scotia would hire a full-time nurse practitioner to help ease the workload.

“Our priority is to focus on those who are currently waiting to support them throughout the process,” said Gubitz. “It is important that we are transparent about our situation and the potential for extended wait times.

“We know that waiting for an assessment or MAID procedure can be a source of increased distress and anxiety for patients, their families and others who support them, and we want to minimize that as much. as possible. “

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