In 2014 Dr Godwin’s partner, Patient A, was terminally ill with breast cancer. On 22 July 2014 she took her own life. Dr Godwin assisted in her suicide by providing her with morphine, hanging the bag of morphine on a broomstick, inserting a cannula for administration of the morphine, squeezing the bag and, upon finding her brain dead when he returned from the grocery store, smothering her mouth with his hand until she stopped breathing. During the course of Patient A’s treatment, Dr Godwin also initiated pathology tests on 10 different occasions and prescribed S8 medicines for pain.
On 19 December 2018, Dr Godwin was convicted of the offence of aid or abet suicide/attempted suicide of another. He was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment to be served by way of an intensive corrections order.
The Commission asserted that the conduct amounted to “unsatisfactory professional conduct” or was otherwise in breach of the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law (NSW) (National Law). The circumstances of the offence and misleading police, either alone or in combination with other matters, was said to constitute “professional misconduct” as defined in the National Law.
The Commission submitted that Dr Godwin’s conduct justified a reprimand and an order suspending his registration for between 6 and 12 months. Dr Godwin argued that a reprimand alone was sufficient.
The Tribunal found that regardless of the relationship existing between Dr Godwin and patient A, the assistance rendered on the date of her death was improper and unethical.
The Tribunal commented that Dr Godwin’s prescribing before Patient A’s death lacked objectivity because of his personal relationship with Patient A. He was obliged to undertake a thorough, regular and independent assessment of her state of health and the appropriateness of those medicines. He did not do so.
Ordering pathology tests over the course of Patient A’s illness was also inappropriate.
Dr Godwin’s failure to keep adequate records relating to Patient A was another part of his practice that the Tribunal relied on to establish multiple instances of unsatisfactory professional conduct.
In the outcome, the Tribunal reprimanded Dr Godwin and suspended his registration for 6 months.
The Tribunal focused on the fact that Dr Godwin deliberately gave information to police to avoid prosecution when designating the seriousness of his conduct. The difficulty the Tribunal had was that Dr Godwin used his knowledge as a doctor to convince police that he had no involvement in Patient A’s death. In the Tribunal’s view, his conduct was sufficiently serious to justify suspension or cancellation of Dr Godwin’s registration.
The Tribunal acknowledged that Dr Godwin acted in Patient A’s wishes and out of “sincere and abiding love for his partner who was clearly in unbearable pain” and he was unlikely to ever commit any offence again in future. Notwithstanding, there was a strong need for denunciation and general deterrence in this case.
The Tribunal considered the following matters in deciding penalty.
- Based on a number of references/testimonials, the Tribunal found that Dr Godwin did not pose a risk to the health and safety of his patients or the public generally.
- Dr Godwin regretted his part in Patient A’s death and “for the dishonesty [he] engaged in as a result”. He acknowledged that what he did was wrong and against the law. Dr Godwin understood that there were professional standards that he was expected to uphold. The Tribunal accepted that he was genuinely remorseful.
- As to general deterrence and protecting the reputation of the profession, while the Tribunal did understand Dr Godwin’s motivations in assisting Patient A, his actions constituted unethical conduct of a serious kind. Not only did he help Patient A die of suicide but he deliberately misled police about the extent of his involvement in Patient A’s death. He used his knowledge as a doctor to dissuade police from prosecuting him. He did so because he knew that if he disclosed what he had done it is likely that he would have been charged with a criminal offence.
Dr Godwin also submitted that suspending him from practice now must be weighed with the fact that he provided a competent and highly sought after service to the people in his community. That was a relevant factor, though not a significant one.
The Tribunal reprimanded Dr Godwin and suspended his registration for 6 months.
As you are aware, the recent Voluntary Assisted Dying Act (WA) 2019 (the Act) now applies here in Western Australia. It is hoped introduction of the Act will lead to utilisation of the regulated procedure to assist with cases of this nature, avoiding the situation where a practitioner feels compelled to involve themselves in an assisted suicide in the same way as Dr Godwin. However, it is possible that situations will continue to arise where the Act does not apply or is difficult to access.
Medical practitioners should redirect patients to the Act and its processes when applicable and assist with trouble shooting access difficulties. If a practitioner conscientiously objects to involvement in the Act, referral should be given to an appropriate assistive practitioner.
If the Act does not apply but a person wishes to end their life, practitioners should take extreme care in providing advice, prescriptions or being involved in care (particularly if in a personal relationship with the patient, as in this case). Taking active steps to assist in suicide in situations falling outside the Act will almost certainly have criminal and disciplinary ramifications for practitioners involved.
Practitioners can also take caution from this case that assisting any loved one with medical care by prescribing or ordering tests should be carefully considered and only undertaken in extraordinary or emergency situations.
To read the full decision in Health Care Complaints Commission v Godwin  NSWCATOD 17 click here