At least 970 people in Canada received an assisted death last year, according to a new federal report that provides the first official snapshot of how medical aid in dying is playing out in hospitals and homes across the country.
Assisted deaths accounted for about 0.6 per cent of all deaths nationwide, says the Health Canada report released Wednesday.
Nearly half of all the assisted deaths – 463 – took place in Quebec, where a separate end-of-life law took effect on Dec. 10, 2015, six months before the federal law kicked in.
There were 507 medically assisted deaths in the rest of Canada between June 17 and Dec. 31 of last year, the report says.
The average age of the patients was 72. The cases were split almost evenly between men and women, and about half of all the assisted deaths took place in hospitals.
Cancer was the illness cited most often by patients granted an assisted death (in 56.8 per cent of cases), followed by neurodegenerative conditions such as multiple sclerosis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (23.2 per cent) and cardiovascular and respiratory diseases (10.5 per cent).
Health Canada is in the midst of crafting regulations that will determine how assisted dying is to be monitored in the future, beginning next year.
The formal-monitoring regime is expected to include a broader set of indicators, including how well the eligibility criteria and safeguards in the law are working.
That data will be supplied to the federal government directly by the physicians, nurse practitioners and pharmacists taking part in assisted dying.
In the meantime, the interim report includes data provided by the provinces, most of which have already been made public.
Shanaaz Gokool, the chief executive officer of Dying with Dignity Canada, said the permanent-monitoring system should pay special attention to instances where requests for a doctor's help in dying are rejected, or don't go ahead despite the required approval from two physicians.
"How many people have asked for assisted dying whose family member has already lost capacity because of Alzheimer's?" she said.
"How many people who've asked [for an assisted death] have a mental illness where they're not imminently dying and don't qualify?"
Ms. Gokool said those kind of figures could inform the work of the Council of Canadian Academies, which has been asked by the federal government to study how the law may be extended to mature minors, or people with dementia or mental illness. That report is expected to be released at the end of next year.
Right now, medical aid in dying is limited to consenting adults who are suffering a grievous and irredeemable physical illness and whose natural death is "reasonably foreseeable."
Some provinces are already collecting richer data that hint at the level of interest in hastening death with the help of a doctor.
Manitoba, for instance, reported that, as of Dec. 31, its medical-aid-in-dying team had received 96 contacts or inquiries about assisted death and 68 formal requests.
Twenty-one of those requests culminated in an assisted death. Another 20 were rejected and the rest did not proceed for other reasons, such as a patient dying of natural causes before the process – including a 10-day reflection period stipulated in the law – was finished.
Canada joined just a handful of other countries that permit assisted death after the Supreme Court in 2015 struck down the Criminal Code provision that made it illegal to assist in a suicide.
The proportion of medically assisted deaths in the Netherlands and Belgium, two other countries that allow assisted death, was 3.75 per cent and 1.83 per cent, respectively, in 2015.