End-of-life conversations are common in hospital medicine, and Caitlin Foxley, MD, FHM, is no stranger to their nuance. She offers patients and loved ones as much factual information as she can. And regardless of their preference—aggressive treatment, comfort care, something in between—it’s ultimately their choice, not hers. But no matter what, she will ensure the patient’s pain remains under control.
“The way I practice is to allow my patients to make the end-of-life decision that is in accordance with their wishes, and not simply push the least expensive one on them,” says Dr. Foxley, medical director of IMI Hospitalists and hospital service chief of internal medicine at Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. However, she adds, “most people, given accurate information in a compassionate manner, would choose to die at home, and not in an ICU on a ventilator, with chemo and pressers going through a central line.”
Although hospitalists differ in their approaches to end-of-life discussions, most agree that the majority of critically ill patients want to know their prognosis. Tested end-of-life prediction tools can help physicians provide realistic ranges for patients and families (see “Helpful End-of-Life Prediction Tools,” p. 39). Armed with this insight, they can hope to deliver better and more cost-effective end-of-life care.
Nonetheless, “we cannot rely solely on a tool to make decisions,” says Alvin H. Moss, MD, FAAHPM, professor of medicine in the nephrology section and director of the Center for Health Ethics and Law at West Virginia University School of Medicine in Morgantown. “The tool is a decision aid.”
Clinicians still need to help patients and families identify their treatment goals while determining which life-sustaining options they would or wouldn’t want to pursue, Dr. Moss says. That conversation would include an estimated prognosis of survival.
“If you try to prognosticate a specific length of time, you will be wrong,” says Steven Z. Pantilat, MD, FACP, SFHM, professor of clinical medicine and director of the palliative care program at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center. “You can give patients a lot of useful information by speaking in ranges.”
But it’s important to also convey the inherent uncertainty of any prognosis, considering that a very sick patient might suffer a sudden decline. For this reason, even the best prognostic indicators aren’t exact, Dr. Pantilat cautions. A prediction tool could forecast a 20% chance of six-month survival on the day before a patient’s death in the ICU.