Anecdotal evidence from Australia and abroad suggests that health professionals may fear potential legal and/or professional repercussions if their patient dies after receiving pain relieving medication at the end of life. As a result, patients may be under-medicated and their pain and other symptoms not adequately relieved. The regulatory repercussions from inappropriate administration of medications are potentially broad and include criminal charges, civil negligence claims, coronial investigations and disciplinary proceedings. But despite these potentially serious repercussions, a review of publicly available cases in Australia reveals there has been comparatively little judicial or quasi-judicial scrutiny where over-medication is alleged to have resulted in a patient’s death.
In this article, we describe the regulatory framework that governs this field of medical practice and analyse the extent to which the actions of health professionals have been scrutinised, and the consequences of that scrutiny. We identify a number of themes arising from this analysis and conclude that fears of legal or professional repercussions are largely unfounded, and that existing laws and other forms of regulation should not inhibit the prescription and administration of adequate pain and other symptom relief to people at the end of life.