We have a lot of work to do to educate the public about the dying process. We are all going to die someday, and we all need to think about how and where we want to be when it happens, if we have any choice in it.
—Caitlin Foxley, MD, FHM, medical director, IMI Hospitalists, hospital service chief of internal medicine, Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha
In Arkansas, Dr. Wood typically turns to the hospital’s palliative-care team in end-of-life situations, asking its members to join in a conference with the patient and family. The team typically consists of a nurse, social worker and chaplain who can address various concerns. An employee from the medical billing department participates if necessary.
“Physicians should never assume that they understand the healthcare system, because it’s incredibly complicated,” Dr. Wood says, adding that she doesn’t pretend to be an expert in Medicare, Medicaid, or private insurance reimbursement issues.
Helping patients with advanced care planning can minimize difficulties later. Most patients who die in hospitals are admitted with end-stage disease, and most spend time in the ICU with mechanical ventilation. Physicians often are unaware of patients’ preferences, and this could lead to misunderstandings, especially in the ICU setting, where prognoses can shift quickly. One study showed that, in order for some of these patients to die, clinicians and families generally had to decide explicitly to strive toward less-than-completely-aggressive care.1
“We’re trying to make sure that patients and families have an opportunity to do advanced-care planning,” Dr. Curtis says. Talking with them about their values and goals is essential for clinicians to understand their preferences.
Part of this involves crafting advanced-care directives. One such directive would be a power of attorney for healthcare, in which a patient states who is authorized to make decisions if he or she becomes unable to do so. This is particularly important for patients who select someone other than whom their state’s law would normally designate.
Another document—the living will—allows patients to specify their own preferences for end-of-life care. Yet “it’s often very difficult to know exactly what decisions will need to be made,” Dr. Curtis says. “Those documents are rarely determinative.” Even when a patient stipulates his or her wishes against “extraordinary life-sustaining measures, it still leaves a lot for interpretation.”
Some patients may spell out more clearly whether they wouldn’t want tube-feeding, CPR, or ventilation. This can be prescribed in written and signed Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST).
If you try to prognosticate a specific length of time, you will be wrong. You can give patients a lot of useful information by speaking in ranges.
—Steven Z. Pantilat, MD, FACP, professor of clinical medicine, director of the palliative-care program, University of California San Francisco Medical Center
Educating the Public
End-of-life discussions also pose a threat of litigation. “It takes a significant amount of time, often during a very busy day, to sit down with a patient and family members to bring up an issue that will undoubtedly raise many questions, some of which are impossible to answer,” says Dr. Foxley, the hospitalist service chief in Omaha. “I’m sure many physicians are uncomfortable with the tears that are shed.”
When Dr. Foxley recently advised a patient’s family that aggressive care would be futile, they directed their anger toward her. Their loved one died, despite the intensive treatment. It’s just one example of many in which Dr. Foxley has witnessed how high-tech medical treatments can incur astronomical hospital bills after just a few days while doing little—if anything—helpful for the patient.
“We have a lot of work to do to educate the public about the dying process,” she says, adding that the entire burden shouldn’t fall on physicians, and that patients should inform family members of their end-of-life wishes. “We are all going to die someday, and we all need to think about how and where we want to be when it happens, if we have any choice in it.”