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How To Have a Good Death

4th April 2006

04042006_sunset_400.jpgGiven television’s appetite for fatality, we should be used to death. But usually it’s in the form of a fictional narrative device or a fleetingly distressing moment in a news bulletin. Rarely do we confront the often drawn-out process of dying itself. In 'How to Have a Good Death', Esther Rantzen wanted to tackle this “last taboo? through interviews with health professionals, the experiences of the terminally ill and the findings of a new survey.

Rantzen's programme is built around the findings of a survey, or rather two surveys, one revealing how bereaved families regarded the way in which their loved ones had been treated leading up to their death, and the other examining the attitudes towards death of a cross section of people. The headlines of the survey showed;

66 per cent of us haven't discussed how we'd like to die
38 per cent of us have a will but only eight per cent have a living will
62 per cent of us don’t want to be artificially fed in a coma
67 per cent of us wish to die at home
78 per cent of us would like to be told if we were dying
80 per cent of us think it's just as important to talk about emotional needs as it physical ones
48 per cent of us would consider ending our own lives if dying
44 per cent of us would consider breaking the law to end the life of a loved one

The programme followed one man, Stanley Edwards, whose prostate cancer spread agonisingly to his bones. Rantzen also talked to experts in palliative care, and to health secretary Patricia Hewitt.

All too often, people complain of relatives having undignified and agonising deaths. This programme looked at the lack of palliative care in this country. The treatment available to the terminally ill is a lottery based on the type of illness and the postcode. Understandably, people are concerned about the manner of their dying. The film finds that some diseases (especially cancer) often provide the "good death" that so many of us crave. But dying at home, with family and without pain, while possible, is still unlikely.

71 per cent of respondents believe that doctors should be allowed to prescribe lethal medication so that patients can end their own lives, and 66 per cent say a doctor should be able to give lethal injections with a patient’s consent. Would that still be the case if our palliative care was more effective? It’s still a Cinderella specialism within the NHS. Palliative care for the dying is simply too low a priority in a healthcare system geared (quite rightly) to making people better. So it is that across the UK's 6,000 hospitals there are only 324 palliative care consultants, while 100 further consultant positions remain stubbornly unfilled.


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