It is very difficult to determine how many people are seeking — and getting — medically assisted deaths in Atlantic Canada, an advocate says.
Sheila Sperry, spokeswoman for the Nova Scotia chapter of Dying with Dignity Canada, said she's aware of two people in long-term care facilities who applied under federal legislation enacted in June. One was granted a medically assisted death and has since died.
But she said she didn't get that information from the Nova Scotia government, and her search for official data has been frustrating.
"I am only aware of those because the individuals personally let me know," she said.
The Canadian Press asked Health Departments in the four Atlantic provinces for basic information on such things as the number of applications and the number of assisted deaths.
All four provinces responded, but only two provided some numbers around medically assisted deaths. Newfoundland and Labrador reported one death, while Prince Edward Island said none have been reported since federal legislation came into effect in June.
Nova Scotia and New Brunswick would not reveal the number of deaths, citing privacy concerns.
"In a province our size, releasing this information at this point in the evolution could serve to infringe patient confidentiality," the Nova Scotia Health Authority said in an email.
The incomplete picture in the Atlantic region is no different than in the rest of Canada, where there is still little data regarding how many people have requested help and have been refused, on the medical conditions leading to those requests, and on how many people have either changed their minds or have died before a request is granted.
Most provinces, though, release the number of deaths.
To date, 87 people have taken advantage of the law in Ontario, while the total in British Columbia is 66, the provinces' coroner's offices reported last week. Alberta has tracked at least 23 deaths, Manitoba has had 12, while Saskatchewan has had fewer than five cases. Figures from Quebec were not immediately available.
In an interview, Catherine Gaulton, the Nova Scotia authority's chief legal officer, said it is compiling information in anticipation of federal regulations around data collection and monitoring expected in June.
Gaulton said the authority is confident the relevant information around assisted death is being tracked.
"It so happens to be that it also lines up with information that you'd normally collect for care," she said.
Gaulton said the authority had also received some direction from the department of vital statistics on how death certificates are to be completed and how to reference the death as medically assisted.
As for making that information public, Gaulton said the authority would have less concern around confidentiality when it has more experience with the law and once there are a larger number of cases.
"We don't have a plan around making it public, but I think that's what we'll see coming out of the federal legislation is that sort of reporting and that knowledge base," she said.
Sperry thinks basic reporting should be done sooner rather than later.
"They should be able to report to anyone who asks the number of applications and the number of requests that have been approved, she said. "That's not doing anything to anybody's privacy, it's just a round number."
New Brunswick's Health Department also declined to provide any numbers because of privacy concerns, but said that could change.
"That number might be made publicly available at a later date, but a final determination has not been made on the format and availability of that report," said the department.
P.E.I.'s Department of Health of Wellness confirmed the province is tracking the numbers and that it has not received any direct requests for applications.
The Island's Chief Coroner's Office said there are ongoing discussions around how to designate assisted deaths on death certificates.
It said under current legislation, if a death involves medical assistance the manner of death "must be recorded as suicide," while the cause of death is to be recorded at the discretion of the physician completing the death certificate.
The office said the province's coroners have been asked to indicate the cause of death in such cases as the "underlying issue which qualified the deceased for medical assistance in dying."