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

Health Care Reform

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

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