“Predictions really apply to groups of people, not individuals,” says J. Randall Curtis, MD, MPH, professor and section head in the division of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of Washington’s Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. Physicians can’t possibly know whether someone will fall into the 95% of patients who die or the 5% of patients who beat the odds.
“It’s never certain that a patient is not going to survive,” says Dr. Curtis, who is director of the Harborview/University of Washington End-of-Life Care Research Program. While patients are less likely to request aggressive care in light of a poor prognosis, some will elect intensive treatment in hopes of defying even the grimmest statistics.
More Medical Tests and Procedures
In the U.S., it’s much more common for patients to receive life-saving treatments than in other countries. The expectation is that expensive medical technology can always prolong life.1
“A lot of patients have that mentality,” says Ann Sheehy, MD, MS, director of the hospitalist service at University of Wisconsin Medical Center in Madison. “That makes it harder to have the discussion with patients that there isn’t something else we can do.” Patients feel “that you’re almost abandoning them, that there’s something you’re withholding.”
The widespread assumption that more medical tests and procedures lead to better outcomes goes hand in hand with the misperception that sufficiently controlling pain and other symptoms draws death closer. As a result, many patients end up dying with distressing symptoms in the hospital instead of peacefully at home.1
As physicians, Dr. Sheehy points out, “We don’t do a good job of saying, ‘This care probably is not going to help you or that it will leave you with a very bad quality of life in the end.’” But projections are far from perfect.
“Telling patients there is a 20% chance that they might die in the next year isn’t usually enough to change their thinking. Nor is it enough to justify withholding treatment,” says David Casarett, MD, MA, associate professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and chief medical officer of Penn-Wissahickon Hospice in Philadelphia.
What prognostic information can do is play an important part in guiding appropriate screening and preventive health measures. For example, if a male patient has a 50% chance of dying within four years, it doesn’t make sense to screen for prostate cancer, a slow-growing malignancy that often takes years to develop. This protocol may also apply to cancer screenings, as well as treatments for diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, Dr. Casarett says.
By not taking a patient’s prognosis into account, many clinical decisions are not fully informed. In physicians’ clinical practice and training, there tends to be less emphasis on estimating prognosis than on diagnosing and treating illness. This is particularly significant in older adults with competing chronic conditions and diminished life expectancy.2
“Many physicians have not been trained in how to have these conversations, which is something we’re trying to change,” says Dr. Curtis, the pulmonary and critical care specialist at the University of Washington. “This is very emotionally difficult for patients and families, and therefore, it can also be emotionally difficult for physicians.”
Starting this summer, medical residents at Cooper University Hospital in Camden, N.J., will have mandated exposure to palliative care. The rotation, lasting from two to four weeks, will occur in their second year of training, says Mark Angelo, MD, FACP, director of palliative medicine.
Residents will accompany the palliative-care team for an intensive period of time to learn about different techniques for symptom control and to observe end-of-life conversations, which often elicit patients’ angst, depression, and physiologic and spiritual unrest.