End-of-Life Choice, Palliative Care and Counseling

Health Care Reform

Intense Treatment in the Last Month of Life Is Rising

by Barbara Coombs Lee
March 4, 2013

One Question Can Stop End-of-Life Torture

Several weeks ago Brown University’s Dr. Joan Teno and her Dartmouth colleagues published a study on end-of-life care in the Journal of the American Medical Association. They looked at the records of almost 850,000 Medicare beneficiaries who died between 2000 – 2009, and first found good news on hospice utilization. A closer look revealed the bad news. I believe healthcare consumers could escape the intractable problem they discovered with one timely question.

First the good news: The percentage of our nation’s elders dying under hospice care doubled in ten years, from 21.6% to 42.3%. If patients close to death received more of the comfort-directed care of hospice and less of the highly invasive, painful and burdensome treatment of intensive care units (ICUs), that would be very good news indeed. Needless suffering would have diminished.

But when the investigators looked at the period immediately preceding referral to hospice, they found a picture of torture and chaos. More people than ever received intense interventions, and the median number of disruptive moves from one institution to another grew from 2.1 to 3.1. ICU stays in the last month of life increased from 24% to 29% and ventilator use also increased, from 8% to 9%. Very sick elders, just weeks from death, are still subjected to intensive and aggressive treatments. Doctors are apparently using more machines and tubes than ever, redoubling efforts to turn around a final medical crisis or forestall death.

The data indicates that when doctors finally accept the inevitable, the end is imminent. 28% of patients received the comfort and care of hospice less than four days. This is a travesty. I would categorize such a last-minute, desperate transfer of a patient to hospice services as “dumping.”  These unfortunate patients didn’t receive comfort care instead of medical tortures. They received the maximum allotment of technological interventions and then got shunted to hospice to die.

Such transfers come too late for a family to realize the enormous relief and peace of mind that comes with knowing a loved one’s comfort comes first.  It’s too late for hospice social workers to do a thorough assessment of a patient and family’s social, emotional and spiritual needs. It’s barely enough time to administer and titrate medications for maximum relief of pain, anxiety, breathlessness and other distressing symptoms.

I would venture a guess that most of the patients in this study who suffered stays in an intensive care unit immediately before transfer to hospice had advance directives. (61% of such patients do.)  I would further guess that most of those advance directives said the patient wanted to limit life-sustaining therapies like CPR, ventilators and other rescue treatments if they were terminally ill. (Most people who fill out advance directives decline interventions if they are dying)

What is going on here? Why were these dying patients treated in violation of their stated preferences and the instructions on their advance directive?

Here’s one reason: The advance directive says, essentially, “no life-sustaining treatment if I am dying.”  But left to their own habits and sensibilities, doctors define “dying” very, very narrowly. So long as some technology, futile or not, remains in Medicine’s bag of tricks, the patient is not “dying.” In this sense, doctors are like a procrastinator putting a task off until tomorrow and believing that, technically speaking, “tomorrow” never comes.

Educators and health policy gurus have spent decades and hundreds of millions trying to turn physician behavior around. This latest study reveals not only abject failure, but lost ground as well. It’s up to the people — those approaching the end of life and those who love them — to prevent medical habit from stealing a peaceful death.

We can change medical habit by applying a reasonable definition of “dying” for ourselves.  We can save ourselves from torture by getting doctors to admit when we are likely to die within 6 months with or without treatment, or are unlikely to survive a hospitalization. That admission should give force to patients’ preferences for the end of life, or to the advance directive if they cannot speak.  But it’s up to us to call the question.

I believe we must muster the courage to ask directly, “Doctor, am I dying?” “Is my mother, father, sister, spouse, or other loved one — dying?”  “Has the time of our careful planning arrived?  Shall we avoid the trap of acting as though the inevitable will never come? Because if scientific calculations say I am likely to die during this hospitalization, I would rather die at home. If the odds are intensive care offers nothing but prolonged suffering, please refer me to hospice now.”

Facing pointed questions like this, doctors will almost always tell the truth.  They are very bad at starting a serious conversation about the end of life, but they can usually participate if they know a patient or family takes end-of-life planning seriously.

Sadly, we must take it upon ourselves to avoid being one of Dr. Teno’s dismal statistics. If the end of a battle with cancer, chronic lung disease or dementia seems to be approaching, prepare yourself to ask the crucial question BEFORE a hospital admission.  Ask it in the medical office. Ask it in the emergency room. Practice asking it before you actually have to utter the words.  “Doctor, am I dying?”

 

Unwanted Medical Treatment at Life’s End Causes Needless Costly Suffering

February 20, 2013

Testimony of Mickey MacIntyre
Chief Program Officer, Compassion & Choices

Before the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Transforming End-of-Life Care

Good afternoon. I am Mickey MacIntyre, Chief Program Officer for Compassion & Choices, a national nonprofit consumer organization dedicated to improving care and expanding choice at the end of life. I appreciate the opportunity to address the committee today.

Compassion & Choices’ central tenet is that Americans are free to choose how they live – so it follows that when the time comes, we are free to choose how we die. This private, personal decision belongs to all Americans – free from government interference. U.S. courts around the country, including the United States Supreme Court, have upheld this right.

Today, I want to address one specific problem: unwanted medical treatment. Patients have the right and the responsibility to guide their own health care throughout their lives, with their trusted health care professionals. Many Americans give thoughtful consideration to medical decisions that may need to be made if they are injured or debilitated, and they articulate their decisions in advance directives.

Congress passed the Patient Self-Determination Act (PSDA) in 1990 to reinforce an individual’s right to determine the course of his health care. This Act amended Medicare and Medicaid law to require providers to follow policies and establish procedures with regard to advance directives. The PSDA established that if these policies are not followed, the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) may decide that the provider is ineligible for payment through Medicare and Medicaid.

President Obama reasserted the importance of respecting patients’ rights in a 2010 memorandum to HHS asking the agency to, “ensure that all hospitals participating in Medicare and Medicaid are in full compliance with [these regulations]…[t]hat all patients’ advance directives…are respected, and that patients’ representatives otherwise have the right to make informed decisions regarding patients’ care.”

Nevertheless, many patients’ decisions are overridden or ignored in the weeks and months before their deaths. This happens for a variety of reasons and can lead to invasive and fruitless testing, needless suffering, unrelenting pain and a prolonging of the period before death. Patients are tethered to monitors and machines despite their determination to reject unwanted treatment and desire to die at home in the embrace of loved ones.

A new study published in JAMA found that between 2000 and 2009, treatment in intensive care units in the last month of life increased from 24% to 29%. The accompanying editorial concluded, “The focus appears to be on providing curative care in the acute hospital regardless of likelihood of benefit or preferences of patients. If programs aimed at reducing unnecessary care are to be successful, patients’ goals of care must be elicited and treatment options such as palliative and hospice care offered earlier in the process than is the current norm.” Compassion & Choices could not agree more.

Policy makers can and should provide both the carrot and the stick to ensure that patients’ wishes are honored: financial incentives for honoring advance directives and financial DISincentives for disregarding patients’ expressed wishes.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) should deny payment to providers where there is clear evidence that specific treatments were unwanted — similar to policies where unnecessary treatment is provided.
The Justice Department is investigating and taking legal action against hospitals and doctors groups when instances of unnecessary treatment are exposed. The same due diligence should be trained on unwanted medical treatment. It is always unnecessary and should be considered a never event.

The explosion of the aging population coupled with the nation’s financial and moral commitment to providing health care to an ever-increasing number of Americans reveals that the scourge of unwanted treatment should be an urgent priority for this committee. Among the next steps Compassion & Choices recommends are:

Initiate and improve the quality of conversations among health care professionals, patients and families about end-of-life decisions, including:
1. reimbursing medical providers for participation in advanced care planning with patients and their families well in advance of illness or before facing end of life;
2. providing financial incentives and training to encourage medical providers to offer all the information and counseling necessary for decision making when securing informed consent;
3. ensuring that the full range of medical care and treatment decisions, including curative care, palliative care and medical assistance in dying, are freely available to patients without institutional or reimbursement barriers.

Further CMS should:
1. exclude from covered services and reimbursement any treatment that contravenes an adult patient’s informed health care decision;
2. track complaints where patient wishes were ignored and ensure that the survey and certification processes for providers require attention to patient’s advance directives;
3. revise billing forms to have providers indicate that care was rendered in conformance with patient’s advance directive and informed consent.

I thank you for the opportunity to testify today, and I will be happy to answer questions or provide written follow-up information.
Thank you.

Submit Your Story of Unwanted Treatment

Have you had an experience involving unwanted or unnecessary medical treatment. If so, please take a moment and tell us your story in an effort to help ensure that all patients have the right to guide their own health care decisions throughout their lives. Please follow this link to our stories submission page.

 

Patients Have Trouble Giving True Informed Consent

by Harriet A. Hall, MD
KevinMD
January 1, 2013

Most of us would agree that doctors should not treat patients without their consent, except in special cases like emergency care for an unconscious patient. It’s not enough for doctors to ask “Is it OK with you if I do this?” They should get informed consent from patients who understand the facts, the odds of success, and the risk/benefit ratio of treatments. The ethical principle of autonomy requires that they accept or reject treatment based on a true understanding of their situation and on their personal philosophy. Numerous studies have suggested that patients are giving consent based on misconceptions. There is a failure of communication: doctors are not doing a good job of providing accurate information and/or patients are failing to process that information. I suspect it is a combination of both.

An article in the New England Journal of Medicine reports that while the great majority of patients with advanced lung cancer and colorectal cancer agree to chemotherapy, most of them have unreasonable expectations about its benefits. For some cancers, chemotherapy can be curative, but for metastatic lung or colorectal cancer it can’t. For these patients, chemotherapy is only used to prolong life by a modest amount or to provide palliation of symptoms. Patients were asked questions like “After talking with your doctors about chemotherapy, how likely did you think it was that chemotherapy would…help you live longer, cure your cancer, or help you with problems you were having because of your cancer?” A whopping 69% of lung cancer patients and 81% of colorectal cancer patients believed it was likely to cure their cancer, and most of these thought it was very likely. More

Probe Reveals Claims of Unnecessary Therapies at Cleveland-Based Life Care Centers

by Kate Harrison and Todd South
Times Free Press
December 16, 2012

Details of an ongoing federal investigation into Life Care Centers of America reveal claims that elderly patients undergoing end-of-life care at several company facilities were pushed to high levels of unnecessary therapies so the company could bill maximum Medicare amounts for profit.

The examples in the federal complaint show a more personal side to the allegations of corporate-encouraged fraud that prosecutors have leveled against the Cleveland, Tenn.-based company.

One segment details the case of “Patient D,” a 92-year-old resident at a Life Care facility in Orlando, Fla., who was dying of melanoma in 2007. Though the cancer had spread to Patient D’s brain and lungs and radiation treatments had made him “medically fragile,” he still was administered two hours of therapy every day.

Two days before Patient D died, he was spitting out blood. Yet therapists recorded 48 minutes of physical therapy, 47 minutes of occupational therapy and 30 minutes of speech therapy in one day.

“The day Patient D died, Life Care therapists recorded 35 minutes of physical therapy and had him scheduled for occupational therapy later in the day,” court records state. More

End of the Line in the ICU

by Kristen McConnell
The Brooklyn Rail
November 16, 2012

Last year I graduated from nursing school and began working in a specialized intensive care unit in a large academic hospital. During an orientation class a nurse who has worked on the unit for six years gave a presentation on the various kinds of strokes. Noting the difference between supratentorial and infratentorial strokes—the former being more survivable and the latter having a more severe effect on the body’s basic functions such as breathing—she said that if she were going to have a stroke, she knew which type she would prefer: “I would want to have an infratentorial stroke. Because I don’t even want to make it to the hospital.”

She wasn’t kidding, and after a couple months of work, I understood why. I also understood the nurses who voice their advocacy of natural death—and their fear of ending up like some of our patients—in regular discussions of plans for DNRtattoos. For example: “I am going to tattoo DO NOT RESUSCITATE across my chest. No, across my face, because they won’t take my gown off. I am going to tattoo DO NOT INTUBATE above my lip.”

Another nurse says that instead of DNR, she’s going to be DNA, Do Not Admit. We know that such plainly stated wishes would never be honored. Medical personnel are bound by legal documents and orders, and the DNR tattoo is mostly a very dark joke. But the oldest nurse on my unit has instructed her children never to call 911 for her, and readily discusses her suicide pact with her husband. You will not find a group less in favor of automatically aggressive, invasive medical care than intensive care nurses, because we see the pointless suffering it often causes in patients and families. Intensive care is at best a temporary detour during which a patient’s instability is monitored, analyzed, and corrected, but it is at worst a high tech torture chamber, a taste of hell during a person’s last days on earth.  More