A landmark case on doctor-assisted suicide is heading to the B.C. Appeals Court in March, but some doctors fear the hot-button issue is drawing focus away from a different, and widely used form of end-of-life care.

Dr. Romayne Gallagher works with the palliative care program at Providence Health Care, which aims to alleviate suffering for the dying.

She argues the highly-controversial practice of assisted suicide would serve just a fraction of terminally ill patients.

“We are focusing on a tiny number of people,” Gallagher said. “We need to really be looking at the issues of: are we providing good end-of-life care, and is that adequately accessible to everyone across British Columbia.”

Gallagher says more research and support should go toward soothing the dying and improving their care, and she doesn’t believe any assisted suicide regime could adequately protect the vulnerable.

“I do not feel that we can put safeguards in place that would ensure that we could, without reservation, give someone the means to kill themselves and just think, OK, that’s fine, everything will be just fine,” she said.

The pending court case started last year with Okanagan resident and ALS-sufferer Gloria Taylor, who challenged the constitutionality of Canada’s ban on assisted suicide in B.C. Supreme Court.

She won, but the Attorney General of Canada quickly announced the ruling would be contested in the province’s highest court.

Taylor died last week, six months after her historic victory, but fellow advocates at the BC Civil Liberties Association have vowed to keep the fight going in her stead.

If the ruling is upheld, BCCLA lawyer Sheila Tucker says it will be up to parliament to determine how best to implement the practice.

“What we would expect Canada to be able to do, and what the judgment allows them to do… is to sit down and say what’s appropriate for Canada.”

A number of possible safeguards have already been suggested throughout the case, many mirroring those already implemented in Washington State under the 2009 Death with Dignity Act.

“One of the key things they would be doing would be making an assessment about whether that person’s decisions was consistent with their fundamental values – was it a chance from the way that they have been,” Tucker said.

Possibilities include requiring patients to consult with more than one doctor, possibly including a psychiatrist, and make multiple requests with waiting periods in between.

“You are making sure [there's nothing] ambivalent about it, but you’re also building a safeguard for voluntariness because at each step it’s necessary for the patient to push it forward again.”

Regardless of the outcome at the B.C. Court of Appeals, the case is expected to make it all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

With a report from CTV British Columbia’s Maria Weisgarber