When South Australia’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Act was formalised in August 2021, the enormous task of training medical practitioners to perform such requests required an especially swift and efficient response – which Flinders University’s Research Centre for Palliative Care, Death and Dying achieved with distinction.
When the Act came into effect on January 31, 2023, a dynamic development team led by Dr Caroline Phelan from Flinders University’s Research Centre for Palliative Care, Death and Dying had already produced a certified program that allowed medical practitioners to participate in voluntary assisted dying.
The task of producing all the necessary materials for SA’s mandatory medical practitioner training was far from easy, but a multidisciplinary team from several Colleges across the University combined their expertise to develop the bespoke learning package, which includes information about the functions of coordinating and consulting medical practitioners, eligibility criteria for people accessing voluntary assisted dying, identifying and assessing risk factors for abuse or coercion, and a competency assessment component that medical practitioners must pass.
“It was a highly successful collaboration – not only because it drew on the expertise of many parts of Flinders University, but also because we worked closely with many people in SA Health who brought their knowledge and experience, and who then took our content and built it into their digital platform,” says Dr Phelan.
It was a challenge for the Flinders team to secure this project for delivering mandatory medical practitioner training in South Australia, with five other contenders lodging submission bids – especially competing against a university which had already provided several state-based applications to other parts of Australia.
“It was therefore a credit to the expertise of the Flinders Team to succeed in this bid,” says Dr Phelan. “It’s a team with diverse talents from more than one college – from expertise in end-of-life law to experts in delivering medical education – and we worked well together to produce a superior result. It was collaboration through cooperation.”
The Flinders team brought together Dr Phelan’s skills as Course Coordinator in Postgraduate Palliative Care courses, along with Dr Deidre Morgan (Senior Lecturer in Palliative Care) and Associate Professor Grant Davies (Health and Community Services Complaints Commissioner in South Australia) from the College of Nursing and Health Sciences; Dr Koshila Kumar (Course Coordinator of Postgraduate programs in Clinical Education) and Dr Michael Zhou (Lecturer in Health Law and Ethics) from the College of Medicine and Public Health; and Dr Esther Erlings (Lecturer in Law) from the College of Business, Government and Law.
The great difficulty facing this team was to meet strict time constraints. Starting in May 2022, the training course had to be built from the ground up and delivered as an operational program during October.
“We ran it like a military operation,” explains Dr Phelan. “We didn’t have the luxury of time to dwell on things. We all had to shut up, pay attention and listen to the expertise around us – which can be a challenge for academics who carry a very authoritative voice. Still, everyone at the table had great respect for each other’s points of view.
“We recognised that a complex project needed many hands, and we reached out to as many people as necessary so that all the pieces fitted together, which included engaging with senior clinicians in SA Health to implement this process.”
The Flinders team developed case studies, films and interactive learning programs then worked with the Women’s and Children’s Hospital E-Learning team run by Richard Huntley to have this material uploaded to its digital platform. The first medical practitioners went through the new training program in November 2022 – and were qualified and ready when the Voluntary Assisted Dying Act started in SA in January 2023.
“We have produced such an impressive product that NSW Health is likely to use it,” says Dr Phelan. “Also, through developing such a positive relationship with SA Health, we were able to secure additional funding to evaluate the training process. SA Health was so pleased to have a group from a university prepared to listen to its needs and deliver exactly what was required that I feel this could lead to other strong collaborations.”