Death Over Dinner: The Australian Centre For Health Research On Why Australians Need To Talk About Dying

08/03/2016 8:43 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
Dallas Kilponen / Fairfax Media

There are few people more qualified to talk about end-of-life decisions than GP Mukesh Haikerwal.

The former president of the Australian Medical Association has been part of the national conversation about death and dying for decades, but he's also a son who was there as his father died in hospital after a stroke and, on an ordinary walk through a park in Melbourne in 2008, Haikerwal was beaten almost to death.

It was a random, violent attack that shocked the nation and left him with severe injuries including a cracked scull and blood clots.

Haikerwal told The Huffington Post Australia he had not previously discussed his wishes when it came to resuscitation and care.

"I didn’t have [an end-of-life care plan] at the time of my attack but thinking about my brother signing on my behalf, it was a decision he took, with my wife’s consent. I still tear up how he had to take that responsibility on his shoulders," Haikerwal said.

He recovered, and continues to be a GP in Melbourne, but the experience showed him why all Australians needed to talk about their dying wishes with those close to them -- before tragedy or illness struck.

"As a GP, one of the things I find very confronting is the way people's ability to make decisions about their own care changes very quickly without any real warning," Haikerwal told HuffPost Australia.

"They are very important, personal decisions they want to make but it's taken away from them.

mukesh haikerwal centre health research

The random attack on Mukesh Haikerwal shocked the nation.

"Often the family are having to make decisions based on what they think is the right care. The key is about getting those decisions in place and talking about them with your ones close so you don’t end up becoming ward of state with those decisions getting made for you."

A new report by the Australian Centre for Health Research found 90 percent of Australians said it was important to talk about their end of life care wishes, yet less than 30 percent of people had actually had that conversation.

The report named Conversations – Creating Choice in End of Life Care, released today, set out a roadmap to change people's attitudes about discussing death starting not with governments and lobby groups, but with individuals.

Haikerwal said Australians of all ages should be talking about their end-of-life care wishes as well as who they'd chose to make decisions on their behalf as a power of attorney.

"It's difficult and It's not just for people who are terminally ill," Haikerwal said.

"What if you get hit by a bus? Do you want to be an organ donor? Do you want your tissues donated? If you're at the prime of your career, who do you want to be the power of attorney? Do you want to be resuscitated if your brain is not working well and you won't have a good quality of life? Or would you prefer to be kept comfortable after your injury and if you succumb, so be it?

"My son was quite confronted when I said 'here’s my will and are you happy be power of attorney?'. At 24 years old, it's not something you think about, you think you're bulletproof, but like most things that are confronting, you feel better when it's done.

"Now I know my will is sorted, that's out of the way."

Australian Centre for Health Research executive director Rebecca Bartel said that without these conversations, people were dying after costly treatment in hospitals despite the fact research showed 70 percent of Australians wanted to die at home but only 14 percent did.

"As a nation we are paying a high price for care we don’t want, in a place we don’t want it," Bartel said.

“We want this work to spark a cultural change so end of life choices can be expressed in advance and respected at the end.

"Conversations about end of life care shouldn’t just start with doctors, governments, insurance companies, or in intensive care units when people are overwhelmed and upset -- they should start with family and friends while breaking bread, and well in advance of an accident or an emergency."

More On This Topic