End-of-Life Choice, Death with Dignity, Palliative Care and Counseling

Health Care Reform

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

Doctors Are Practicing Irrational Medicine at the End of Life

By Monica Williams-Murphy, MD
KevinMD.com
September 22, 2012

I just took care of a precious little lady, Ms. King (not her real name), who reminded me that, too often, we doctors are practicing irrational medicine at the end of life. We are like cows walking mindlessly in the same paths; only because we have always done things the same way, never questioning ourselves. What I mean is that we are often too focused on using our routine pills and procedures used to address abnormal lab values or abnormal organ function, to rightly perceive what might be best for the whole person, or even what may no longer be needed. Our typical practice habits may in fact become inappropriate medical practice at life’s end.

Ms. King was a case in point: She was a 92-year-old nursing home patient on hospice for metastatic breast cancer. Ms King had been transferred to the ER for a sudden drop in blood sugar, presumably due to her oral diabetes medication. Her appetite had apparently been trailing off, as is common at the end of life, and her medication appeared to have become “too strong.” Her glucose level had been corrected by EMS during her trip from the nursing home to the Hospital, so when I came into see Ms King she was at her ‘baseline.’

I opened the door to bed 24 and a grinning little white-haired lady peered at me from over her sheet. “Hi,” she said greeting me first.

“Hi, Ms King,” I smiled back at her and picked up her hand.

She reached over with her free hand to pat me on my forearm, “You sure are a cute little doctor,” she said smiling.

I couldn’t hold back a little laughter. “Well, you sure are a cute patient too,” I smiled and winked at her.

She winked back at me.

“Wow, this is the most pleasant 90-year-old I have cared for in a while,” I thought to myself.

As we chatted it became clear to me that she had some mild dementia but had no pain or complaints at the time. She just said, “I think I had a ‘spell’” ( a “southernism” for some type of unusual and undefined episode of feeling ill or fainting); and “I’m not hungry” when I offered her food.

Leaving her room still smiling after our pleasant exchange, I went back to look at her medical record from the nursing home and two things immediately struck me:

1. She was on 20 medications, only about half of which seemed needed or appropriate to me. For instance, if someone is expected to die from cancer in the next 6 months (which is why she was on hospice care), why should that person take a cholesterol pill every day?

  • Is it going to change her outcome? No.
  • Will it add to her comfort? No.
  • Could it possibly cause unnecessary harm? Yes.
  • So, why is she on this medication? No rational reason that I can think of, other than mere habit on the part of the doctor.
    • Doctor habit: See an abnormal lab value ( i.e. elevated cholesterol) = give a pill to correct it. While this is a fine default among the rest of the population, this type of unconscious medical practice at the end of life is contributing to wasteful drain of precious and scarce Medicare and Medicaid dollars. We cows (doctors), need to depart from these types of paths. If the usual pill, practice or procedure does not have any benefit for the dying person, if the typical treatment doesn’t create comfort, or may actually harm this person, then DON’T DO IT! Get off this path!

2. She was on hospice care but her order sheet read, “Full Code.” I can never figure this one out. If you or your family member enters hospice care this means that you generally accept that your time on this earth is limited, specifically to less than 6 months or so. Thus, it is irrational to ask for chest compressions or shocks or artificial life support measures when your expected end comes. Right? Didn’t you sign up for hospice because you were wishing for a peaceful, natural death? Well, not everyone agrees with me, so I called Ms. King’s power of attorney to clarify this point, it was her son, Mr. King.

Mr King was a pleasant man who said that he was unable to come to the hospital because he himself had suffered a stroke. After I explained the full code vs Do Not Resuscitate/Allow Natural Death pathway, he said, “Oh No! she never wanted all of that life support stuff. Both of us want what you said, ‘ a natural death.’” More

Uninformed Consent, Unshared Decision-Making in the ICU

By Barbara Coombs Lee

Imagine yourself the son or daughter of a grievously ill octogenarian. Your mom or dad suffered a catastrophic event and has been in an ICU, barely conscious, for two weeks. You understand organs are shutting down, but you struggle to understand the medical jargon or the purpose of tubes and machines attached to every orifice. You and your family have kept a steadfast vigil at the hospital, and today the doctors called a meeting to talk with the family.

The family is desperate to understand what is happening and learn what lies ahead. The doctor needs the family to authorize a treatment plan. Will you learn how close your loved one is to death? Will the doctor learn their end-of-life wishes? Are there options and difficult decisions to be made? The legal standard for these conversations is that the family consents to treatment after being fully informed of alternatives, risks and benefits of each. The medical standard is that critical treatment decisions are not unilateral, but shared by the patient or surrogate and the doctor.

Sadly, informed consent and shared decision-making, the twin pillars of patient-centered healthcare, aren’t the rock-solid structures we would hope for. They are subtle, fragile fragments, often half-buried and overlooked in a heap of technological rubble. It’s a doctor’s job to dig them up and erect them, and many are not so inclined. That’s the lesson of a new study in the Journal of Intensive Care Medicine.

It is well established that many dying patients endure excesses of torturous treatment in the intensive care units of America. Tubes, machines and other contrivances can take over in clear violation of previously expressed wishes. Advance directives declining such treatments routinely get ignored. Three years ago I blogged about a bloated and misguided medical-industrial complex that tortures patients, and called it a national tragedy. I’m sorry to report not much has changed since then. More

Time Magazine’s Cover Story on End-of-Life Care

“How to Die” reads the cover of the June 11th issue of Time Magazine. Joe Klein writes about his parents’ approaching the end of life, and about the dramatic improvement in their care when they transitioned to a facility without incentives for unnecessary interventions.

The full story will soon (or immediately, for subscribers) be available online, and at newsstands later this week. Watch Joe Klein’s discussion now at Time.com.