Over 80 Comox Valley doctors want to keep new hospice beds away from St. Joseph's Hospital

Doctors in B.C.'s Comox Valley are calling on Island Health to keep two newly-funded hospice beds away from the faith-based St. Joseph's General Hospital, currently the only area hospice but one where Catholic church doctrine discourages doctor-assisted suicide. 

Over 80 doctors in the area have penned a letter to Island Health, urging the health authority to develop a new community hospice where patients would be allowed to receive medically-assisted death.

"We feel [medically assisted death] should be something that's available to hospice patients in the valley without having to do what they currently have to do — which is be transferred out to other hospitals," said Dr. Jonathan Reggler, chair of the Physicians Advisory Council with Dying with Dignity Canada.

Reggler says transfers away from the hospital are often painful and distressing for both patients and family. Roughly 14 per cent of assisted deaths on Vancouver Island occur at hospices, according to the doctor.

'An ideal opportunity'

The refusal of Catholic hospitals to encourage assisted dying has been a contentious issue since the practice was made legal by the federal government.

Last October, Reggler resigned from the hospital's ethics committee to take a stand against their reluctance to practice assisted death. At the time, a hospital spokesperson from the hospital told CBC News the hospital is within its rights to "conscientiously object" to the practice.

In a letter signed by 80 doctors, Reggler is now pushing for a new hospice to be built in the community, after Island Health recently announced funding for two new hospice beds. He says the new hospice could be co-located beside a new 70 bed residential care facility that Island Health is planning to build.

The group penned a letter lobbying Island Health to incorporate a hospice into the new facility.

Meanwhile, Reggler says the hospice at St. Joseph's is eventually going to be torn down, adding its four beds could be relocated to the potential new hospice.

"What we're seeking is just have the four hospice beds removed, join the two new beds that are being funded by Island health, and placed alongside a non-faith based site, which we know is going to be built," he said. "We have an ideal oportunity to actually make this happen."

Island Health responds

Island Health has yet to make any decision on the matter.

"We value our partnership with the Comox Valley Hospice Society, and with St. Joseph General Hospital in the delivery of residential hospice services,"  Island Health told CBC News in an e-mailed statement.

"All options for the location of the two additional hospice beds for the Comox Valley, along with all options to support palliative patients in receiving compassionate care that meets their personal wishes, will be considered during the hospice bed planning process."

Reggler says he expects an official decision from the health authority come spring.

With files from CBC's All Points West

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: Comox Valley doctors want to keep new hospice beds away from St. Joseph's Hospital