Alleging that 130,000 elderly patients are being euthanased each year by Britain's National Health Service takes a bold man. Repeating it uncritically takes a foolish one. Yesterday the Daily Mail ran a feature by journalist Steve Doughty under the headline "Top doctor's chilling claim: The NHS kills off 130,000 elderly patients every year".
The journalist quoted an address made by Professor Patrick Pullicino, a consultant neurologist for East Kent Hospitals and Professor of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Kent, to the Royal Society of Medicine. The claims were truly shocking:
"The lack of evidence for initiating the Liverpool Care Pathway makes it an assisted death pathway rather than a care pathway. Very likely many elderly patients who could live substantially longer are being killed by the LCP. Patients are frequently put on the pathway without a proper analysis of their condition. Predicting death in a time frame of three to four days, or even at any other specific time, is not possible scientifically.
"This determination in the LCP leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy. The personal views of the physician or other medical team members of perceived quality of life or low likelihood of a good outcome are probably central in putting a patient on the LCP."
He added: "If we accept the Liverpool Care Pathway we accept that euthanasia is part of the standard way of dying as it is now associated with 29 per cent of NHS deaths." With the help of a calculator, the Daily Mail came up with the headline figure of 130,000 people being "killed off".
The reaction on the internet was immediate. The London Daily Telegraph repeated it uncritically. Dozens, if not hundreds, of blogs featured it under headlines like "Doctor alleges massive euthanasia in Britain" and "Death by government care".
However, none of them seemed to grasp that the Daily Mail is (after the demise of the News of the World), Britain's premier practitioner of yellow journalism. For the most part, its expertise is broken engagements and bikinis, not bioethics. A closer reading of the text shows that the journalist had not actually spoken with Professor Pullicino. A closer examination of the figures shows that "associated with" does not mean "cause" or "kill off". The address was not mentioned on the Royal Society of Medicine website.
The Liverpool Care Pathway, a protocol for treating patients who are expected to die soon, has been criticised before. However, it is not government-sponsored euthanasia. Even the head of the Christian Medical Fellowship, Dr Peter Saunders, a staunch opponent of euthanasia and assisted suicide, called the report alarmist. "The overwhelming majority of people on the LCP are experiencing much better care at the end of life than they would have had if it had not been used."
Professor Pullicino may have some serious gripes about the LCP, but whether this pièce de résistance of sensationalism really represents what he believes, let alone what the NHS is up to, is hard to tell.
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