Mr Stewart, who is also Labour’s Shadow Public Health Minister, was speaking at a member’s debate raised by MSP Miles Briggs on Research Projections into Place of Death in 2040.
The debate homed in on research by charity Marie Curie, the University of Edinburgh and Kings College London which said that if current trends continue by 2040 two thirds of Scots could die at home, in a care home or a hospice. Currently less than half do.
However, the research says it is very unlikely to happen without substantial investment in community-based care including care home capacity. Without this investment hospital deaths could rise to 37,089 (57%) of all deaths by 2040.
Mr Stewart told fellow MSPs: “This is an issue that has long interested me and has fundamental public health implications for Scotland.
“Having a right to die at home in my view is a basic human right and accords with the European Convention on Human Rights.”
Mr Stewart highlighted concerns by Shetland GP Susan Bowie who contacted him about the gap in ‘hospital at home care’ for patients. He has also received similar concerns from other GPs in Scotland.
Dr Bowie and Mr Stewart believes there should be an automatic right for people to have full care at home day or night for their last few days of life, so that then can have their wish fulfilled to die at home.
Mr Stewart explained that the Parliament had previously been praised for ‘legacy policies’ such as free personal care, the smoking ban and minimum unit pricing on alcohol.
He continued: “In my view a right to die at home policy could join the illustrious group of legacy policies that parliamentarians and constituents of the future could look back on with pride.”
Mr Stewart said that in a recent Marie Curie poll 61% of Scots said they would prefer to die at home and research by group, Dying Matters, found around 70% of people would prefer to die at home, yet around 50% currently die in hospital.
“Parents have the right currently to have their child born at home and the NHS provides midwives, but we don’t have the right to have carers to enable us to die at home. So, I see a real policy gap there,” said Mr Stewart.
“In conclusion there can be fewer more important policy areas in health than one that provides certainty to those suffering from terminal conditions and the choice over place of death, to spend the last days and hours at home with loved ones rather than in hospital with strangers.”
Mr Stewart asked Public Health Minister, Joe Fitzpatrick, if the Scottish Government had thought about enshrining in law the right to die in a community setting. Mr Fitzpatrick replied that it wasn’t something that had been considered but he wondered whether it should be.
- Mr Stewart’s own member’s debate on the right to die at home is set to be heard early in 2020.
Note for editors
During the debate Mr Stewart outlined the concerns of Dr Bowie who said in the past when someone wished to die at home, she was able to organise volunteer help for families in caring for their relatives, as often children find it difficult to take care of their parent’s personal needs.
A list of trained people would be available occasionally to help if required, and to give relatives a break. It was a great low-cost service.
However, this was closed in Shetland years ago and social care could not fill the gap, so carers were not available at night or at weekends.
He said during the debate that the situation had moved on since last year with Health Secretary, Jeane Freeman, telling him that the current model of on-call nursing on Shetland is to be extended to a waking night service using advanced nurse practitioners alongside care staff to support people in the community. This will start this year.
However, despite reassurances to the contrary from Shetland IJB, he has heard that there are still not enough carers and nurses especially during weekends and evenings.
“This can only get worse with an ageing Highlands and Islands population,” he added.
“I agree with Marie Curie that the care of terminally ill people must be given a higher priority and there must be more substantial support services.”